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Schools Will Be Protected From Cuts Next Year, Walcott Says

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 08:00 PM

After years of painful cuts and threats of teacher layoffs, New York officials laid out on Tuesday a decidedly more optimistic portrait of financing for city schools next year, saying they expected that principals would have enough money in their budgets to retain most of their teachers and other school employees.

In testimony before the City Council Education Committee, the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, said the Education Department's goal was to provide principals with a stable source of revenue next year so they could maintain the current level of instruction and other services.

"The goal is to make sure we protect the schools as much as possible this year and allow the principals the flexibility to hire new teachers," he said. Overall, he said, "we expect schools' budgets to stay static."

Last year many principals balanced their budgets by consolidating classes, letting go of some specialty teachers or laying off aides and other school personnel.

A preliminary budget showed last month that there could be a cut of $64 million to general education spending next year, which could have resulted in the loss of 1,117 teachers through attrition.

But Mr. Walcott said the city was committed to finding a way to protect schools from those kinds of losses.

"There are not going to be school cuts," Mr. Walcott said. "We're working very hard with the system to make sure that any type of reduction around the budget, we do it centrally," he added, referring to central administration.

The system has lost 5,300 teachers to attrition in five consecutive rounds of school budget cuts since 2009, reducing the citywide teaching pool to 73,982.

While enrollment in city schools has remained fairly stable, at 1.1 million students, the number of students in first through fifth grades who are in classes of 30 or more has tripled in the last three years, according to a report released on Monday by City Councilman Brad Lander, Democrat of Brooklyn.

"What are we doing to stem that tide?" City Councilman Lewis A. Fidler asked Mr. Walcott. "Every additional child that enrolls increases class size."

Mr. Walcott responded that it was up to principals to decide whether to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes.

As in recent years, overall city spending on schools is expected to increase.

Under the budget that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed in February, the Education Department will receive $19.6 billion, an increase of $209.6 million, or 1 percent, over last year. Part of the extra financing will come from additional money from the state, as well as a higher allocation from the city.

The department plans to spend $12 million next year to open 30 new public schools, officials said. It is also opening 28 charter schools, which receive public money, but officials did not have estimates of that cost.

But costs the department cannot control, including those for pensions and special education services, continue to rise rapidly, leaving a budget gap of roughly $400 million.

The department's plan to hold schools' budgets at their current levels depends partly on increases in state funding, which was being determined in Albany in a deal reached by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers, even as the hearing was taking place.

Still, the budget picture this year is far rosier than the one last year, when Mr. Bloomberg threatened the layoffs of thousands of teachers until city officials and the teachers' union reached a deal to avoid teacher cuts. This year, layoffs are not even on the table.

However, there is no suggestion that principals will receive extra money with which to undo the effects of several years of scrimping. And as the prices of labor and supplies rise, principals could find that this year's budget can only go so far to cover next year's costs.

In addition, the city and the union have until January to reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system. If by that time no agreement has been reached, the city could lose millions of dollars in state aid.

In his testimony, the president of the city teachers' union, Michael Mulgrew, urged the Education Department to pursue Medicaid reimbursements, which officials have failed to collect for the millions of dollars in services they provided to special-needs students in recent years.

"This needs to be the year when we finally reject the disinvestment that has so decimated our school communities," Mr. Mulgrew said.

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