Heated Debate at Council Hearing Over Layoffs

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Called before the City Council on Tuesday to explain the reasons for the layoffs of 672 school-support workers, Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott came armed with dates and facts to back his claims that the layoffs should not have come as a surprise to anyone.

“Nothing has changed since we all stood together on the steps in the Tweed Courthouse on that late June evening to announce the budget agreement that, while averted teacher layoffs, included 1,000 non-uniform, non-pedagogical layoffs,” Mr. Walcott told Council members, reflecting on the ceremony marking the passage of the city’s budget.

The layoffs, which took effect on Friday, would not be an easy sell to the Council members.

Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens: “I always feel where there’s a will, there’s a way and if you really wanted to avoid these layoffs, you could.”

Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn: “There were alternatives.”

Councilman Robert Jackson of Manhattan: “These layoffs are just the latest in a long-lasting series of damaging cuts to schools.”

It was Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. of Brooklyn, though, who set a tone of confrontation for the hearing, yelling over Mr. Walcott at times to get his point across or to rebut one of his arguments.

During one of the most heated exchanges, Mr. Recchia asked him, “How much is all the unemployment going to cost?”

Mr. Walcott turned to Veronica Conforme, the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, who replied, “Seven million dollars.”

“If they go on food stamps,” Mr. Recchia said, “how much will that go up?”

“I don’t have that number,” Ms. Conforme told him.

“We have that number,” Mr. Recchia fired back. “That will go up to $11 million.”

For Mr. Recchia and his colleagues, the thinking was that the money the city will ultimately save from the layoffs -- $26.5 million -- is insignificant once you factor in the city’s share of benefits the workers are likely to apply for. Besides, they wondered, who will do the work that was done by the people who have just lost their jobs?

Turns out some of the tasks could fall to teachers, whose contract permits them to supervise students in the cafeteria, a task usually performed by school aides.

Among the laid-off workers, the 410 aides make up the bulk of the total. The others include 66 parent coordinators, who serve as a link between parents and a school’s administration and 82 family workers, whose role includes making sure homeless students show up for class. Most of these workers are black or Latino women, many of whom are single mothers themselves who work in the same schools their children attend.

“This has a racial impact that should not be ignored,” Ms. James said.

Mr. Walcott said he did not take those considerations lightly, but added, “I’m not in a popularity contest.” He said he took the chancellor’s job to improve children’s education “and in that context, there are some decisions people are not going to be happy with.”

Mr. Walcott said the union representing the workers, District Council 37, had its chance to avoid the layoffs. Deputy Chancellor David A. Weiner, who testified alongside Mr. Walcott on Tuesday, said he had a meeting with the union’s leaders in June and warned them, though the union said the meeting was not about layoffs, but about changes to the start of the school year.

At the time, the city was trying to get permission from District Council 37 and other unions to tap into a health care fund the unions' managed to help balance the city’s budget and, in turn, avert thousands of teacher layoffs. District Council 37 did not sign on to the proposal and the teachers’ union went on to make its own agreement with City Hall, protecting its members.

At the hearing, Lillian Roberts, the president of District Council 37, said the jobs of the school-support staff members her union represents were never part of the discussions in June. Earlier, Councilwoman James mentioned that in 2009 the city tapped into the same fund and, still, 500 school aides lost their jobs.

This time around, for District Council 37, “it was an issue of trust,” she said.

Mr. Walcott said the city had to carry out the layoffs to avoid disrupting the budgets of most of the city’s 1,700 schools, which had been finalized in August. “Principals shouldn’t be micromanaged from Tweed,” he said.

One of the proposals made by the union to avert the layoffs was to cut by one hour the time school aides were to work in schools. The city rejected it; at the hearing, Mr. Weiner, the deputy chancellor, said the cuts would have caused schools like Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx to lose 55 hours of staff time and Curtis High School in Staten Island to lose 20 hours of staff time.

Mr. Recchia said later in the hearing: “This is something that had we known, we would have put the money back on the budget to save these jobs. That’s what breaks my heart.”

The workers who lost their jobs are among the city’s lowest paid. School aides make $14 an hour, while the starting salaries for family workers and parent coordinators are $20,000 and $35,000, respectively.

Since 2007, city schools have endured an average of 13.7 percent in budget cuts. Mr. Weiner said that after teachers and others represented by their union, like secretaries and guidance counselors, were made off limits to layoffs, principals who opted to cut staff to balance their books were left with few options but to let go of workers represented by District Council 37.

The cuts have had a disproportionate impact on struggling schools and poor students. Mr. Weiner said that might just be a matter of these schools having more aides than the schools in other parts of the city. He conceded, however, that schools with more aides tended to be the ones with more needs.

Three hours after the hearing began, as the testimony by Mr. Walcott and his deputies was winding down, Mr. Recchia said: “I’m putting you on notice. What’s happening here is not right, that these people, in these tough economic times, are being laid off. That’s not right.”