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The 2006 School Budget -- Reasons To Be Pessimistic

by Gail Robinson, Jun 22, 2005
 

Almost every public school parent, student and teacher takes it as an article of faith that city schools do not have enough money. Teachers spend their own money to purchase supplies, parents buy paper towels for their child’s classroom and students regard crowded classrooms and shabby playgrounds as the norm. But, as angry as many New Yorkers may be about this, they – or at least their elected representatives – do not blame Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Or so it would seem from the recent council hearing on next year’s budget for the Department of Education.

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Earlier this month, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein appeared before the council’s Education Committee to answer questions on the proposed $14 billion operating budget for the Department of Education. Probably the most remarkable thing about the session was how peaceful – even cordial – it was. And the muted response extends beyond council chambers. Parents have stored away their Save Our Schools (SOS) buttons, and this spring has seen no banner waving rallies in front of Tweed Courthouse or angry letter-writing campaigns.

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Certainly the sharp rise in results on standardized test scores by city students – released just two days before the council hearing -- contribute to some of the optimism. Council members and others were undoubtedly cheered by an increase, however slight, in school funding. The mayor says he has boosted city spending for education by a total of $2.5 billion since he took office.

But the aura of good feeling in the council chamber could fade. As savvy parents, council members and educators know, the optimistic budgets of spring can look far different in autumn. Last year, for example, many students showed up at school in September to find scheduled classes eliminated because of budget cuts. The Department of Education restored the bulk of those programs but only after weeks of turmoil at many city high schools.

Even now, the budget features some unanswered questions and possible dangers. For example, some wonder how much of the increase in the operating budget money will actually go into classrooms. The budget also makes two assumptions that are, from the city’s viewpoint, wildly optimistic: It assumes the education department will get almost $2 billion for capital expenses from Albany and that teachers will agree to a contract giving them merely a modest salary increase.

THE BUDGET INCREASE

All told, the mayor sees the Department of Education operating budget increasing by about a billion next year. This comes down to about $910 for each of the system’s 1.1 million students.

The increases include:
--$15 million to help at-risk students;
--$2.8 million for gifted and talented programs;
--money for new small schools, some designed to replace larger failing schools
--$4.6 million for English language learners and $2.8 million for a translation unit to help families that do not speak English;
--$95.9 for special education
--$13.4 million school security

But much of the budget increase, the chancellor readily admits, will not show up in classrooms. Some will go to pay increased fuel costs and fringe benefit costs. While he would rather spend this money in the classroom Klein said, he had no choice: Students have to get to school somehow, and, once there, they cannot sit in unheated classroom.

Since Klein took over, many people, including some of the Democratic candidates for mayor, have criticized him for spending too much on consultants and on high priced bureaucrats (educrats in the jargon) with little education experience. But parent activists and even council members will be hard-pressed to determine just how much money goes for such items. As a recent council guide to the education budget notes, “The education budget is so large and so vague that it’s easy to hide serious flaws within it and hard to spot trouble when it arises.”

Class size can be a case in point. The mayor’s executive budget calls for adding $10 million to keep class size in lower grades at its current level – but it does not set a clear numerical target.

Smaller classes remain popular – many educators say that they are one of the few proven ways to boost students' performance – and expensive. But while advocates for them appear, for the moment at least, to have removed the issue from the budget talk, it is part of the mayoral campaign. Council Speaker Gifford Miller, for example, would spend $380 million – generated by keeping the income tax surcharge on the richest New Yorkers – to limit classes in the lower elementary grades to 17 students. Borough President C. Virginia Fields and Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer have also called for smaller class sizes. At the same time, advocates for smaller classes have launched a drive (in pdf format) to put a ballot measure calling for smaller class size before voters in November.

THE CAPITAL BUDGET

In its four-year capital plan for 2006 to 2009, the city hopes to spend $10.5 billion to create more than 50,000 additional places for students around the city, restructure 44 schools, modernize science and computer labs and provide athletic facilities, among other improvements. In light of the overcrowding at many schools and shabby and outdated facilities at many others, the plan holds obvious appeal.

But there’s a hitch. According to the mayor’s budget, $6.5 billion of that money will come from the state. The city’s estimate derives from the judge’s order in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit on the funding of education in the city. In his decision, Judge Leland DeGrasse ruled that the city schools needed an additional $9 billion in capital funding for the next five years. But, Governor George Pataki has appealed the judge’s ruling and the state has not budgeted any money to comply with DeGrasse’s ruling.

Of the $2.6 billion in the 2006 executive capital plan presented in April, $1.8 billion is to come from the state – but the state budget adopted this spring did not include those funds, creating a possible $1.8 billion gap in the capital budget. “Should we vote yes on a budget with $1.8 billion that’s not there?” education committee chair Eva Moskowitz asked Klein during his appearance at the council. “Can we get it before October? I don’t know. I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Klein responded that the capital budget was not “pie in the sky. It is a court mandate.” But, he conceded, it would be hard to fund the programs without the state money. Despite repeated questioning, he would not say what he would advise the mayor to do if (cynics would say when) the money does not materialize.

The Educational Priorities Panel, a private group that works to improve education in the city, advises caution. It notes that the administration says no projects will be delayed. But the group adds in a statement on its web site, “In the past, capital budget cuts and increases have not necessarily been a good predictor of how many new schools will actually be built.”

If the Department of Education eventually cancels or delays some projects for lack of funds then council members, particularly those whose districts are affected, would squawk. But for now, at least, legislative and executive branch can present a united front, looking to Albany to come through.

THE MISSING CONTRACTS

The other big question mark in the budget involves labor costs. New York’s 100,000 public school teachers have been working without a contract for two years, as has the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents 5,500 principals, assistant principals and other administrators. The teacher's union, the United Federation of Teachers, has recently stepped up demands for an accord and criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg for not using the city’s $3.3 billion city surplus to reach a settlement with the teachers. Bloomberg, on the other hand, argues the surplus is temporary at best. The administration also says it wants to use the contract to force major changes in other aspects of the teachers contract – scrapping many seniority rules, making it easier to fire teachers, giving principals more authority over who they hire and so on.

Klein said the budget envisions the teacher’s a contract similar to that reached with many other city workers. But the teachers – along with police and firefighters – have resisted this idea, arguing that the city must pay teachers more if it is to compete with suburban school districts and keep qualified teachers in the city.

POLITICAL GAMES

As it is every year, the 2006 budget discussions also provide council members an opportunity to lobby for items of particular concern to their constituents. Vincent Gentile decried overcrowding at Fort Hamilton High School in his district. Diana Reyna outlined deteriorating conditions at the 850 Grand Street Campus. “We are bursting at the seams,” she said.

And Simcha Felder, most of whose Orthodox Jewish constituents do not use the public schools, urged the city to raise money by selling parts of some little used school playgrounds for real estate development. “It’s a no brainer,” he said. Many might agree – but not in the sense Felder meant.

Such gripes and proposals are all part of the game, as Klein apparently has learned very well. As he rushed out to another meeting, Moskowitz asked him whether he had a “philosophical objection” to giving teachers an allowance to buy books and supplies. The program was cut from this year’s budget – and last year’s as well. “No,” Klein said, “I don’t have a philosophical objection. You always put it back anyway.”

 


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