A Complex Budget Picture Feeds Reliance on Parent Donations

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The budgets for each public school that arrive each spring, dictating the degree of austerity for the following academic year, are almost never seen by parents. They are not pretty, most principals would agree, and they have grown increasingly complicated in the last few years.

Yet parents, as well as their children, soon feel the consequences, as schools turn to families for everything from donations of toilet paper and hand sanitizers to money that can reach thousands of dollars to fill gaps in staffing.

For parents being asked to pitch in, it might be difficult to believe, but school spending has risen every year under the Bloomberg administration.

However, so have costs, especially in special education and transportation. To make ends meet, city officials have set a less ambitious agenda for school construction projects, eliminated planned raises of four percent for teachers, and reduced individual schools’ budgets as many as five times over the last several years.

And individual schools appear to be increasingly turning to parents.

In March, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that, for the first time in years, the city planned to keep schools’ budgets flat. But on average, schools have been directed to cut 13.7 percent since 2007.

Schools have absorbed those cuts differently, depending on the type of students they have and when they opened. Small schools established under the Bloomberg administration have often opened with grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a financial cushion that has helped them weather years of reductions by the city. And schools with very large percentages of special education students or poor children receive more money through federal requirements, which lessens the bloodletting.

How money is distributed has also had an effect on how much flexibility principals have in their budgets. Before 2007, when Joel I. Klein, who was the chancellor, sought to standardize school funding, the city doled out money based on how many teachers it estimated a school should have, and the average citywide cost of those teachers.

Today, schools with similar demographics receive roughly the same amount of city money, regardless of how many teachers they have or how much those teachers cost. The change means that now schools with less expensive teachers have more room in their budgets to absorb cuts than do schools with more costly, more experienced staffs.

Because schools receive more money if they enroll more children, the budget cuts have created a perverse incentive to raise enrollments while reducing teaching positions. That partly explains one city phenomenon: that the same schools that complain year after year about overcrowding have occasionally expressed horror at the idea of redrawing district boundaries to prevent it.

Last fall, the principal of Public School 290 Manhattan New School, a coveted school on the Upper East Side, begged the city not to chop two residential blocks out of her zone, lest she wind up under-enrolled. Come May, the school still had waiting lists, which is a problem for parents, but a boon for the bottom line.

Much also depends on the ingenuity of principals and the deep or shallow pockets of their parents, an issue that raises perpetual questions of equity.

In Lower Manhattan and Park Slope, Brooklyn, weathering the last several years of austerity has looked very different from the experience of schools in Harlem and Corona, Queens.

While wealthier schools have increased class sizes and cut back on activities like school plays and overseas trips, many hold lavish fund-raising events and galas so they can continue to offer the arts programs and after-school events that attract families who can afford private schools.

Poorer schools have cut course offerings, particularly in subjects like health, the arts and foreign language. In some cases, they have replaced the classes with online courses. Many have also laid off school aides, parent coordinators and other support staff members; this school year, 716 people in total lost their jobs.

Meanwhile, after a drop in financing, the city raised the eligibility requirements for schools to receive extra funding based on their students’ poverty levels.

In years past, the formula covered schools where 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunches. This school year, 60 percent of a school’s students had to meet this requirement. Dropped from the federal program, some schools suffered budget cuts far bigger than the citywide average of 2.5 percent.

Principals in high poverty neighborhoods typically rely on federal grants and the generosity of local elected officials to make up the difference.

At Public School 171 Patrick Henry, a well-regarded school in East Harlem with kindergarten through eighth grade, the principal, Dimitres Pantelidis, keeps a long list of his grants and partnerships to show visitors. Next to each item, he places an amount. New York Cares holiday gift program ($35,000); an after-school program with Harlem RBI ($40,000); a reading program ($120,000).

The figures are not what he pays, but what he imagines the programs might cost another school principal with a much larger budget.