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Council Wastes No Time Grilling Walcott on Teacher Layoffs

Friday, April 08, 2011

The City Council Education panel did not spare Schools Chancellor-appointee Dennis Walcott on his second day on the job, attacking Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans to eliminate 6,000 teaching slots.

Walcott, a veteran City Hall and DOE player, got uniform expressions of support for his elevation to chancellor from the Council education panel. But some questioned his ability to act independently of the mayor.

Under close questioning, Walcott conceded that class size was on an upward trend, which he said averaged one percent in classrooms citywide - or roughly one and one and a half students per class.

Council members complained that the planned layoffs would only make classes larger.

"Ok, how much do we need to save these teachers jobs?," asked Councilwoman Gale Brewer.

The DOE's Chief Financial Officer Veronica Conforme said it would take $700 million dollars.

Brewer than went on to identify several specific areas where she thought DOE could make up some of that amount.

Council members took turns suggesting that Mayor Bloomberg's call for layoffs was merely a ploy to reshape the teacher workforce without negotiating with the UFT, the teacher's union.

Chancellor-designee Dennis Walcott said it was all driven by actual numbers. He said between more than a billion dollar in rising costs and the loss of $1.6 billion dollars in state and federal aid the layoffs were the only way to balance the DOE budget.

"Keep in mind that we still have multi-billion dollar budget gaps in the years ahead," Walcott said.

According to Walcott, Albany's retreat on funding the city's public education came even after the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit required the state to significantly increase their commitment. He noted that Mayor Bloomberg had tried to fill the federal void with a fresh infusion of $2 billion of city money into the schools.

"In 2002 the city and state were spending in equal proportion on city schools," said Walcott. Now, excluding Federal aid, "the city is carrying 61 percent" of the cost of its public schools.

Council Education panel Chair Robert Jackson conceded the fiscal challenges, but said Mayor Bloomberg's preliminary budget lacked "creativity and collaboration." Jackson took issue with the Bloomberg school spending priorities that cuts teachers while hiking spending on outside contracting by 18 percent and increasing spending on Charter schools by 129 percent since 2009.

Several council members, including chair Jackson, assailed Mayor Bloomberg for not supporting the extension of a state millionaries tax which he contended would have made the planned teacher layoffs unnecessary.

"I don't buy your notion that we have a crisis or have a spending problem," said Councilman Barron. "We have a revenue problem." Barron said that the millionaire's tax along with collecting on the existing stock transfer tax would yield billions of dollars in new tax revenue. "We need to stop and frisk some white guys on Wall Street for their toxic derivatives," said Barron.

Councilman Lou Fidler took the DOE to task for a lack of fiscal transparency, noting that the council only had a three-page summary to use to evaluate the DOE's $23 billion dollar school budget. Walcott pledged to get the council whatever details they required.

The DOE represent roughly a third of the City's overall budget. The Mayor and City Council have until the end of June to reach a budget deal. Walcott said teacher pink slips would have to be out by June or sooner.

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