Politics or Theater?

Budget season is always a drama. Every January the mayor proposes cuts that are staunchly opposed by various constituent groups. Public hearings are held in the City Council. Then, by the spring, the mayor issues a revised budget restoring some of the cuts and the Council votes. Some call it the annual "budget dance."

But this year's dance is more like a high-stakes version of "Dancing with the Stars." On one side, there's Mayor Bloomberg saying the city's perilous economy could force him to cut  23,000 jobs from city agencies - 15,000 of which would come from the Department of Education.

On the other side, there's the powerful United Federation of Teachers. Union President Randi Weingarten declared that by proposing so many layoffs in education, the mayor was using her members as "pawns" in a political feud with Albany. She said she hadn't seen such a drastic proposal since the layoffs of the 1970s, and she described the chaos the city went through then as a warning.

So what's going on? If there's new federal money on the way, why is Bloomberg proposing layoffs?

Bloomberg says he's confident the city will get Medicaid reimbursements from the federal stimulus package. But he seems a little less confident about the education aid.  Or at least that's his argument now as he turns his focus on Albany.

Federal school aid is divided into specific categories: Title 1,  for students in poverty, and money and students with disabilities. Districts are supposed to use these additional funds in the stimulus package to make up for local budget cuts.

According to Bloomberg, Governor Paterson's new budget cuts the city's share of school aid by $770 million in Fiscal Year 2010. The mayor wants the state to ensure that the federal funds are used to patch that gap. But he's also been critical of the state's own funding formula. A lawsuit brought by a group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars for New York City in 2007, when it was settled by former Governor Eliot Spitzer. Bloomberg claims much of that money is too restricted, because it's earmarked for schools with high concentrations of students in poverty and low test scores. Schools with wealthier populations and higher test scores don't get as much aid. So if schools in poor neighborhoods get extra stimulus dollars to make up for the state cuts, schools in wealthier neighborhoods won't - resulting in bigger class sizes.

Bloomberg is now calling on the state to make its own funding formula more flexible to help the city weather the fiscal crisis. Without that change, he says, there's still a risk of layoffs. If Albany does everything he's asking for, however, he predicts only 1400 or so job losses in the city schools - mostly through attrition. That's hardly even a story, he told reporters after his budget briefing.

Tell that to the teachers, though. UFT President Randi Weingarten, who also heads the American Federation of Teachers, had just returned from a meeting with President Barack Obama on Friday after the mayor's remarks. She held a press conference attended by about 120 teachers and pounded her podium as she declared "I am astonished, I am shocked" that the mayor would make teachers pawns in his battle with Albany. New teachers would be forced to leave in the event of layoffs because of seniority rules. A young teacher named Passion Hutton, from PS 36 in Harlem, cried as she spoke of how much her students mean to her. "I eat, sleep and breathe my job," she said. Then, she added, "Mayor Bloomberg doesn't scare me 'cause I'm a kindergarten teacher!" to ecstatic applause.

Weingarten was asked by a reporter if she thought the mayor was using the threat of layoffs to force her members to make concessions.  Bloomberg said he wanted to rein in labor spending by getting new hires to accept a lower pension, and by having members pay more for healthcare. But Weingarten claimed her union was open to helping the city save money. She said there are alternatives the mayor isn't considering in this budget dance - namely, a hiring freeze and an incentive for early retirement. New teachers make about $44,000 a year, much less than those who have been in the system for a long time and whose salaries max out at almost $100,000. She also claims it's disingenuous for the mayor to complain about cuts from Albany when he's cut the city's own education budget. On Friday, she dared the mayor to go to Albany with her to plead for additional funds to close the budget gap.

Now, would that be a waltz or a tango?