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Larger Class Sizes Ahead, Walcott Warns

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 10:40 AM

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott told parents Tuesday night that harder budget times are ahead, and that still larger class sizes will result.

In his opening statement at a town hall-style meeting in the Bronx, and in later answers, Mr. Walcott noted his department’s serious budget constraints — including a new round of cuts that will reduce school financing by millions of dollars.

He said the department would try to “spare schools as much pain as possible” by searching for administrative savings, but he acknowledged that schools would still feel the squeeze.

“The reality is that as we take a look at fewer dollars, we’re going to see the class sizes creeping up,” Mr. Walcott said.

The Department of Education laid off almost 700 school workers this month, and city agencies have been ordered to cut their budgets still further.

Still, though the event at Middle School 223 the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in Mott Haven was the first since the city's latest round of progress reports was released for elementary and middle schools, it was fairly subdued.

The chancellor wore a headset microphone and responded for more than an hour to questions from some of the several dozen community members in attendance, who were asked to submit their inquiries on note cards. Some of the questions were about the budget cuts, but they largely focused on special education, parental involvement and struggling schools.

At one point, Neyda Franco, a member of the local school district’s parent council, picked up a microphone and identified herself as a parent of children with learning disabilities. She then criticized the school system’s process for creating personalized plans for students with disabilities, known as Individualized Educational Programs, or I.E.P.’s.

“They’re done to fit the school’s services, not to fit the children’s needs,” said Ms. Franco, 61. “The bottom line, chancellor, is that the students are not receiving their I.E.P. services.”

Mr. Walcott said a customized plan should be developed for every student with a disability, which is mandated by federal law, and that each child should be placed in the “least restrictive environment” possible.

“I’m a believer that when I walk into a school, I don’t want to know who are the special education students,” he said.

At one point, the chancellor took what he called a “commercial break” from the question-and-answer session to describe the “pivotal role” that he envisions for the districts’ parent councils in future decision-making.

Earlier this month, the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer, called this year’s parent council elections an “abysmal failure,” and noted that only 5,000 parents cast advisory votes, compared with 25,000 in 2009. He and other elected officials also published a report that said the councils’ roles should be updated to “offer parents a meaningful voice” in policy decisions.

A comment card from one parent urged the chancellor to resist closing Public School 277, a struggling elementary in the district that earned an F on its most recent progress report.

Mr. Walcott said his department had not made any final decisions about how to handle P.S. 277 or the other 19 schools on the city’s list of lowest-performers — though he did not rule out closings as an option.

“I try not to sugarcoat things,” the chancellor said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

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