Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/176 Wed, 17 Jul 2019 00:55:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Struggling with Overcrowded Schools and Large Class Sizes, City Advances $8.8 Billion Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8673-struggling-with-school-overcrowding-and-large-class-sizes-city-advances-8-8-billion-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8673-struggling-with-school-overcrowding-and-large-class-sizes-city-advances-8-8-billion-plan 2 cm r espinal ground

Mayor de Blasio & others break ground for a new East New York school (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Some days, it can be hard for Arthur Goldstein to walk down the hallway of Francis Lewis High School in Queens, where he teaches English as a second language. Goldstein’s school is one of 25 overcrowded schools in the 26th school district, and has a utilization rate of 207 percent, according to a 2018 Department of Education report.

“There are some days when I think I’m going to go to this office and I turn around and walk to another office because it’s just too much work to get through walking down the hall that way,” Goldstein said. “I don’t know if you can even imagine that, but that’s happened to me more than once.”

Francis Lewis High School has a capacity of about 2,400 but enrolls closer to 4,600, Goldstien said. Those students are some of about 520,000 students — nearly half the city’s school population — in the city who attend an overcrowded, also known as over-utilized, school, according to a Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) report released July 9. Those students attend roughly 618 schools, with the worst overcrowding in Brooklyn, Queens, and the central Bronx. Overall, there are roughly 1.1 million students in 1,840 schools in 32 school districts across the five boroughs, according to the Department of Education.

While the CBC report said crowding may lessen as enrollment citywide declines and, overall, the number of crowded school buildings has declined by 31 since 2015, others have expressed concern that the problem will get worse because the current need is already greater than the 83,000 seats the Department of Education has identified to be built to reduce crowding. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio added 57,000 seats to the 2015-2019 capital plan to meet the 83,000 need seat estimate. 

The new plan also includes $180 million for the removal of Transportable Classroom Units — known as TCUs or trailers — where some students at crowded buildings may be receiving instruction. In 2018, it was estimated that about 8,000 students learned in trailers, and then-schools Chancellor Carmen Farina said the DOE had removed 159 out of 354 total trailers and had plans to remove 75 more. In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s capital plan projected that all TCUs would be able to be removed, and he promised that would be completed by 2012.

Former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had in 2014 urged de Blasio to prioritize the removal of trailers and set aside some of the $800 million the city received from the Smart Schools Act, which allocated funds for districts to upgrade technology, increase pre-kindergarten capacity, and get rid of trailers.

Chalkbeat reported at the time that lawmakers had doubts that removing trailers was a priority of the de Blasio administration, as a DOE official said at a hearing earlier that year that trailers could be used to expand capacity for pre-K, de Blasio’s top campaign promise and mayoral priority. De Blaiso said at a press conference at the time that he will keep prioritizing the issue in his capital plan, as in 2014 his administration allocated $405 million toward removing TCUs.

“I don’t want kids in trailers,” de Blaiso said at the press conference. “I want to move aggressively to get them out of trailers. We know that will take some time, but we’re committed to it. We’re also committed to putting in new facilities in most overcrowded areas.”

Now, several years later, advocacy groups like Class Size Matters and City Council Members like Daniel Dromm say the new city capital plan — which includes nearly $8.8 billion for school capacity projects to be started over the next five years — does not have an updated estimate of the need for seats since the 2015-2019 capital plan as residential development, rezoning projects, and other trends will change the need in certain sub-districts.

“It’s very suspicious,” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “They claim to be building all the seats that are necessary, but that’s based upon an estimate that is many years old.”

Overcrowding occurs in pockets around the city with crowded buildings in each district of each borough, but CBC research associate Riley Edwards, who wrote the new school capacity report, said there are enough seats currently for all New York City students, and the key to thinking about alleviating school overcrowding is more aggressively pursuing strategies other than school construction.

Edwards said most districts actually have an excess of seats, and the severe overcrowding occurs in sub-districts, with nine of 32 districts — five in Queens, two in Brooklyn, one in the Bronx, and one on Staten Island — packed with more students than their target capacity.

Other myths about school overcrowding, as detailed in a 2016 CBC report also authored by Edwards, are that middle and high school students face the worst crowding problems — it’s actually elementary school students — and that plans to build new schools will solve the problem. The new report says the DOE needs to focus on other strategies it already uses, such as rezoning, changing admissions policies, repurposing seats, and programming.

“It does take a long time for the city to site and build a new school,” Edwards said. “There’s only so much available land in the city and a limited amount appropriate for school buildings.”

According to the Independent Budget Office, Queens’ District 26 ranked as the third-most crowded school district with a utilization rate of 109 percent for the 2017-2018 school year, behind District 25 in Queens, and District 20 in Brooklyn, which both had over 121 percent. However, Dromm said district- or borough-wide numbers do not reflect the “tremendous” overcrowding that occurs at the sub-district level in individual schools.

According to Class Size Matters, the average class size for K-12 schools in New York City during the 2018-2019 school year was 26, almost no change from 2014-2015 when the last capital plan was proposed. The average class size in the United States is 21, according to the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development. Haimson said over 330,000 students in the city were in classes of 30 or more.

While some research shows that reducing class sizes may have small benefits at best, Haimson said ultimately larger class sizes are detrimental for students.

“There’s a huge amount of rigorous research that shows the larger the class, the less learning goes on,” Haimson said. “There are also a lot of other negative effects of large class sizes. Kids become less engaged, they’re more likely to get held back, they’re more likely to get referred to special education, and they’re more likely to have disciplinary problems.”

Dromm, now the Council’s finance chair and previously its education committee chair, said during the 25 years he was teaching at P.S.199 in Queens’ District 24 he saw the crowding getting worse each year.

“I remember a day when the janitors came into the school, and they opened the maintenance closet right outside the staff room,” Dromm said. “They took out the pitchfork, they took out the rake, they took out the shovel, and they threw up a coat of paint. They turned that into the speech classroom. That’s how bad some of the situations are in some of the schools.”

To address the issue, the city Department of Education’s new $17 billion five-year capital plan for 2020-2024 proposes funding to create 57,000 new school seats across all school districts, with about half expected to be completed no later than the start of the 2025-2026 school year, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. The IBO predicts that all of the seats would be completed by 2028.

The plan sets aside $8.8 billion for capacity issues, including $7.9 billion for 57,000 new school seats in 88 new buildings and $150 million for class size reduction programs, which the DOE described as “increasing the number of school options available to students.” The DOE plan outlines the Class Size Reduction Program as building additions or new school buildings near buildings that have a high rate of overutilization, use trailers, are geographically isolated, or has a recognized seat-need that has not been funded.

“We’ll continue to build on these investments and work with school communities to meet their needs,” Isabelle Boundy, an assistant press secretary at the Department of Education, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

In 2003, following a lawsuit that claimed the state’s school funding system underfunded the city’s public schools, a New York Supreme Court concluded that for New York City students to receive their constitutional right to a sound basic education, more equitable funding was needed to reduce class sizes. At the time, the average class size for grades 4 through 8 was 25, and Contracts for Excellence — the nonprofit advocacy organization that filed the lawsuit — said class sizes needed to be just slightly lower, around 24. 

Four years later, the state passed a law called Contracts for Excellence that partly required districts to put funds toward reducing class size and required New York City to reduce class sizes across all grades to specific goals — such as reducing 4 through 8 class sizes to 23 by 2011 — over the next five years.

Since 2007, about 93,000 school seats have been built, according to CBC, but Class Size Matters says class sizes have gone up and are “still significantly larger” than in 2003. Kindergarten class sizes have risen from an average of 21 in 2007 to 24 in 2019, though the Contracts for Excellence target was around 20.

Class Size Matters joined a group of parents and other advocacy groups in April 2018 in filing a lawsuit against city schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, the DOE, and state education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to demand the city reduce class sizes. The court ruled in 2018 it was up to the commissioner to decide, and she said in 2017 the class size requirements in the Contracts for Excellence law had expired years ago, though Class Size Matters charges that the law is still in full effect. The plaintiffs are now appealing the decision and arguments are expected later this summer.

Meanwhile, the city continues to build new school seats to try to relieve crowding issues, but does not have to follow the guidelines for class size in the Contracts for Excellence law.

At a City Council hearing in December, Dromm said while the investment in 57,000 new seats included in the new capital plan will bring the total number of seats constructed since the start of the last five-year plan to a “historic” 83,000 seats, he said the DOE did not include a new, recalculated number of seats needed in 2024.

He said the 83,000 seats fulfills a commitment the mayor made in 2017 to fully fund the identified seat need by 2025, but there is disagreement over whether that number will remain years later by the end of the new five-year plan in 2024. Shino Tanikawa, the co-chair of the city’s Education Council Consortium, a body of elected parent leaders, said even though the mayor added more seats to the plan, the city is “always behind” the need.

In 2015, the city rejected a recommendation from the Blue Book Working Group — which was formed to make the DOE’s Enrollment, Capacity, and Utilization report, commonly known as the Blue Book, more accurate — to include the class size standards set in the Contracts for Excellence law in the Blue Book calculations for capacity and utilization. Though, the DOE did remove trailers from capacity calculations, decreasing the capacity of those schools.

Tanikawa, who was a member of the group, said the DOE should use aspirational class sizes to calculate, but instead the report is calculated using class sizes that are too large. For grades 9 through 12, the Blue Book uses a target class size of 30, despite the 2007 goal of an average class size of 25 for those grade-levels, according to the city’s Planning to Learn report from 2018. The Blue Book uses a higher target class size than the goals set in 2007 for all grades except for Kindergarten through 3.

“To many of the advocates on the working group that was the most important recommendation we made,” Tanikawa said. “And that was the one that was rejected.”

The 83,000-seat estimate came from a DOE analysis in November 2017 and was released in the February 2018 version of the 2015-2019 five-year plan. Class Size Matters estimates that the need is at least 100,000 seats based on the number of schools that are currently overcrowded, the likelihood of enrollment growth in parts of the city, and the need for class size reduction.

“I believe that they’re right,” Dromm told Gotham Gazette of Class Size Matters’ estimate. “Seat need is probably closer to 100,000, and the administration’s plan does not really reflect that. They claim that they put 57,000 seats into the budget this year, but still it doesn’t really reflect the need we feel is out there.”

The DOE predicts a decline of 4 percent enrollment, down to about 881,000 students, across public schools (the projection excludes enrollment in non-DOE spaces, charter schools, and District 75) by 2022-2023, though Dromm said residential construction, rezoning efforts, and overall city population growth are not adequately addressed in the plan. Haimson said demographic trends are difficult to predict and that there may be less overcrowding due to population shifts in certain areas over time, but the city’s population is growing fast.

Enrollment has declined over the past decade across the United States due to falling birth rates, but CBC has also reported that enrollment may increase in already crowded districts. 

The city’s population is expected to grow from 8.6 million in 2019 to 9 million in 2040, with the Bronx and Brooklyn expected to grow at the largest percentages, according to the city’s population projections.

“More and more families are choosing to stay in the city when they have children,” Haimson said. “And the mayor’s continuing to encourage development at any cost.”

When the city has undergone large-scale neighborhood rezonings, such as the ones for the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx and East New York in Brooklyn, the School Construction Authority works closely with the Department of City Planning to identify the projected school seat need for those areas, according to SCA President Lorraine Grillo’s comments at a Council hearing in December. Rezoning deals between the city and local Council members often include school seat considerations, sometimes including the construction of at least one new school, like in East New York.

The new five-year plan allocates funding for 6,000 seats within six rezoning areas projected to move ahead during that time: the Hudson Square rezoning and Hudson Yards in Manhattan; Crotona Park East/West Farms rezoning in the Bronx; Pacific Park, Greenpoint Landing, Domino Redevelopment and Albee Square in Brooklyn; and Halletts Point rezoning in Queens.

According to the city’s Rezoning Commitments Tracker, the construction for a 1,000-seat school in East New York (the first neighborhood rezoning passed under de Blasio) has begun, and commitments were made in the Jerome Avenue neighborhood plan for new elementary schools in Districts 9 and 10. Commitments for at least one new school were included in four out of the city’s five large-scale neighborhood rezoning plans, with the others slated to be completed by 2023.

Council Member Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, who chairs the Council’s capital budget subcommittee and negotiated the Jerome Avenue rezoning, said at the December Council hearing she was “pleased” about the Jerome Avenue commitments but added that the city is frequently rezoning smaller areas, and every new construction will bring families with school-age children. Griillo said the SCA is informed of smaller rezonings and uses them to inform future projections.

“(There are) the larger neighborhoods that we have rezoned from East Harlem, East New York, Far Rockaway, Jerome in the Bronx, and Inwood, but on a monthly basis on a much smaller scale we pass out smaller rezonings every single month,” Gibson said at the hearing. “We are creating an incredible amount of housing.”

The recent CBC report said there are significant shortcomings in the school construction the DOE and SCA do undertake. Not all new school capacity is created to address overcrowding, according to the report, and not all new seats are built in districts with overcrowding.

While the DOE also projects by 2022-2023 an enrollment decrease of 7 percent in elementary schools, where CBC says nearly two-thirds of the seat need is, the mayor’s initiatives like universal pre-kindergarten have added additional pressure to already overcrowded schools, though some programs are located at separate sites not run by the DOE, Edwards said.

A majority of the 93,000 seats built since 2007 have been for elementary school students, but more than 3,700 of those seats were built in districts with a “relatively low utilization,” according to the report.

Dromm said the DOE has allocated seats for districts they say have not received seats “in a while” though the need is greater in other districts. He said for District 24, the DOE has recognized that around 4,000 seats are needed to address crowding issues there, but those seats were not funded in the new five-year plan and were distributed to other areas.

At a council hearing in December, Grillo said more seats were added in District 24 than any other district in the city, so the funding for those seats were reallocated to districts that had not yet received additional seats.

“But District 24 remains one of the top districts for seat need,” Dromm said. “They’re still not addressing the areas where the seat need is the greatest, and that’s concerning to me.”

Additionally, the CBC report said the city has allocated too many seats for high schools, whose overcrowding problems could be solved by utilizing the surplus of high school seats and changing high school admissions practices.

Edwards said the city actually has more seats than students — the shortage of seats in crowded high schools, according to the CBC report, is about 32,000 whereas there’s about 65,000 unused seats at high schools — and there are ways the city can maximize that space.

However, the IBO said in testimony to the Council in 2015 that using the unused seats to alleviate overcrowding is difficult because changing admissions policies can be a contentious topic, the extra seats span across boroughs so the potential for change is limited to a few areas of the city, and DOE policies like universal pre-K will continue to put capacity pressure on buildings.

In the CBC report, Edwards outlined four ways the DOE can address overcrowding that are less expensive and more efficient than school construction, which takes an average of 41 months from the start of design to the end of construction. The DOE already uses these alternative strategies to reduce overcrowding — rezoning, repurposing seats, changing admission policies, and programming — but the report said they are “underutilized” while school construction is the main method.

According to an April 2019 DOE report on space overutilization in schools, the decline in overcrowded buildings from 646 in 2015 to 615 in 2018 was due to a combination of new capacity, resiting, facility upgrades, and new facilities.

According to CBC, in 2017, 42 high schools implemented “split-session” scheduling, which allows more than the traditional eight periods to be scheduled throughout the day; 43 schools were impacted by the rezoning of school districts; and 21 schools repurposed seats through re-siting to underutilized or new buildings. Some other schools received renovations or new facilities.

The CBC report says the DOE could rezone elementary schools or allow zones to overlap or be grouped together to use more seats at under-utilized schools. The report says the majority of the school district rezonings enacted between 2014 and 2017 were to accommodate the opening of a new school and implementing them more often to adjust incoming enrollment would be more effective.

According to the report, the city could also more frequently repurpose seats by truncating some schools and expanding others to relieve crowding. Another way to repurpose seats that has “substantial potential” to address the issue is converting administrative and non-school space to instructional rooms, CBC says.

While the report specifically says that buildings with multiple schools should share administrative offices to save space, some overcrowded schools have had to convert spaces like closets to create more room.

Enforcing enrollment capacity standards at high schools would reduce overcrowding at schools, like Francis Lewis in Queens, because there are enough seats citywide for high school students and those admissions are done on a citywide basis, the report said.

Tanikawa said because of the way the city funds schools — through the Fair Student Funding Act that allocates a fixed amount per student and adds funds if the school also serves students who are poor, struggling academically, have disabilities, or are learning English — there is an incentive for principals to take more students than a building is designed to hold.

“They don’t do it to be evil,” Tanikawa said. “They want to provide a robust, comprehensive education program and in order to do that principals are forced to take more students than they really should.”

Goldstein said it is “insane” that there is no limit to the number of students, which he said would be the best way to reduce overcrowding at Francis Lewis. Instead, the DOE plans to build an annex by 2021 which will add about 10 to 15 classrooms and replace the trailers the school currently uses.

Goldstein is his high school’s United Federation of Teachers chapter leader, and he said though the UFT has guidelines for class size, there is no upper enrollment limit for neighborhood schools like Francis Lewis.

He said he taught in a trailer for 12 years and taught in a half-sized classroom last year, which posed challenges ranging from preventing students from cheating to just getting around the room. Goldstein said he hopes they can eventually get rid of the trailers, but he fears that even with extra classrooms from the annex will not be enough.

“It will be good,” Goldstein said. “Will it be perfect? No it won’t be perfect.”

***
bySamantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Struggling with Overcrowded Schools and Large Class Sizes, City Advances $8.8 Billion Plan Mon, 15 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'We're Moving Now': City Pursues School Desegregation Measures, with Major Looming Test https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8644-we-re-moving-now-city-pursues-school-desegregation-measures-with-major-looming-test https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8644-we-re-moving-now-city-pursues-school-desegregation-measures-with-major-looming-test Carranza De Blasio education

Chancellor Carranza & Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced on June 10 that the city will adopt 62 recommendations focused on diversity and integration in public schools, focusing on middle and elementary schools, from the Department of Education’s School Diversity Advisory Group, a new step toward school desegregation as many students, families, educators, and others have waited years for the city to make progress.

A 2014 UCLA report said New York public schools were the most segregated in the country, but stressed that they didn’t have to be. The report said a combination of demographic transformations and a lack of diversity-focused policies led to “problematic segregation patterns.” 

Adding metrics to an annual report to track numbers related to diversity and integration, defining a city goal to aim to have “all schools to look like the city,” and investing in programs to provide more opportunities in high poverty schools are some of the recommendations that some say are the most significant. Also part of the picture is city grants to school districts that want to design their own integration plans, as a few districts have already done.

The adoption of the recommendations come after “a long period of frustration,” according to City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat who has been one of the leaders in pushing school desegregation efforts in the city. Lander added that Carranza’s leadership has been significant in moving the advisory group and broader conversation along. The city accepted all but five of the group’s 67 recommendations, with two rejected and three are still under review.

While many say the initial slate of recommendations is a positive step, some have criticized the plan for lack of timelines for implementation and not being aggressive enough to make fast progress on school integration. Members of the group have said this report is just a start, and a second set of recommendations in July will address some of those concerns, including taking on the tough subject of high school admissions. 

Some have also said the two recommendations the de Blasio administration did not select — the creation of a Chief Integration Officer position and analyzing the possibility of moving the supervision of School Safety Agents from the NYPD to the Department of Education — could have spurred more progress. 

The three of the 67 from the first report that are still under review would make resources available to any district making diversity plans if the DOE receives more applications than the $2 million it already set aside can support and establish a separate set of funds for districts that have not started integration discussions yet. The third suggests developing and investing in enrichment programs in elementary schools.

Since Carranza took over as chancellor in April 2018, he has taken a much more aggressive approach to school desegregation than his predecessors, the apparent result of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new willingness to address an area of significant criticism during his first five years in office, though the mayor is still facing heat for his tepid approach to what is a civil rights and education issue with major socioeconomic and racial implications.

Carranza has implemented mandatory implicit bias trainings for all teachers, lobbied state lawmakers to drop the single entrance exam for the city’s specialized high schools where few black and Hispanic students are enrolled, and eliminated the use of “limited unscreened” enrollment policies in high schools, which gave priority to applicants who attended admissions fairs to show interest and were thought to favor students with more engaged and wealthier parents. 

Mayor de Blasio in 2017 had created a modest diversity plan and established the School Diversity Advisory Group, which came up with the recently-released recommendations. But, de Blasio’s agenda had lacked plans on school integration until recent years. Council members as well as student and teacher advocates increasingly pressured the mayor in the years after the UCLA report. Then he appointed Carranza, who has been outspoken, at times ruffling feathers de Blasio had been loathe to disrupt, to push conversation and action around school integration.

“The chancellor’s coming and embracing that advocacy and working together to build it...has been essential,” said Lander, who co-sponsored a package of legislation passed in 2015 that intended to bring attention to segregation in public schools, “because we had all that organizing going on, but we did not yet have much progress.” 

Preliminary Movement: 62 Recommendations
The 2014 UCLA report found that of the city’s 32 school districts, 19 included 10 percent or fewer white students. Additionally, it said the combination of “double segregation” by both race and socioeconomic status created more inequalities. 

An updated 2019 report found that while some progress had been made, the city’s schools remained largely segregated. From 2001 to 2015, the number of “intensely segregated” elementary schools in gentrifying areas declined by about 10 percent (from 91 percent in 2001 to 83 percent in 2015), those in non-gentrifying areas increased by 15 percent. Intensely segregated schools are defined as 90 to 100 percent non-white. 

Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor de Blasio and now senior vice president for social justice at the New School and a co-chair of the School Diversity Advisory Group, said in an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC that school integration benefits all students. She said dropout rates go down while graduate rates go up, and students do better in college.

Wiley said that the recommendation adding diversity metrics is a “game changer.” She said having numbers on diversity and providing the public with the reports will help keep the city accountable. 

She added that one of the recommendations, creating diversity targets in middle school admissions, is an expansion on the mayor’s 2017 Diversity in Admissions program that planned for 50,000 more students to attend racially representative schools. Because some researchers noted that the goal could be met by demographic shifts alone, Wiley said the SDAG wanted to be more aggressive. 

“In the short term we said schools, meaning zero to three years, schools should look like their districts. Then over five years they should look like the borough. In 10 years they should look like the city,” Wiley said on WNYC. “The link to the metrics is how do you know if you’re getting that done if you’re not reporting?”

Two-thirds of the students in the city’s school system are black and Hispanic, 15 percent are white, and 16 percent are Asian, according to DOE data. In the city overall, 33 percent are white, 26 percent are black, 24 percent are Hispanic, and 13 percent are Asian.

Clara Hemphill, the director of education policy and editor at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs’ project InsideSchools, said the recommendations serve as a guide for how the city can move forward with integration on the district level.

The recommendations encourage districts to develop their own diversity plans similar to the one in Brooklyn’s District 15, part of Lander’s Council district, which eliminated the use of screens in middle school admissions and committed 52 percent of seats to students who are low-income, learning English as a new language, or are homeless.

The city announced that five districts will receive $200,000 in grants to increase their schools’ diversity, and one recommendation from the advisory group encourages nine more districts to develop integration plans. Another recommendation outlines that the DOE will “support and encourage” districts to examine new middle school admissions policies, while another urges districts to be transparent about their integration processes to ensure progress.

However, Hemphill said for a borough like the Bronx, whose population is largely black and Latino, there is not going to be integration of different races and income levels at most schools in those districts. She added, though, that the recommendations do layout an answer to help those schools: providing more and encouraging the recruitment of diverse faculty create ways to improve the schools’ quality.

“At neighborhoods where you can’t have racial integration of students, you can still make schools that have plenty of resources and represent the kids,” Hemphill said.

The mayor’s approach to school desegregation so far has been to encourage districts to pursue their own integration plans with assistance from the DOE, which has happened with success through parent-led efforts in Districts 15 and 3. De Blasio regularly says he believes it must be a bottom-up, not top-down effort to integrate city schools.

City Council Member Daneek Miller said at a June 19 press conference that there is a consensus from the members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus as well as the Progressive Caucus that the recommendations are necessary to address school segregation problems. He added, though, that “these 62 points don’t necessarily address everything.”

Perceived Shortcomings
Critics have said the recommendations lack specific timelines for implementation and fail to address greater issues of enrollment screens and district segregation.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, said because the recommendations focus on district plans rather than a city-wide plan, not much progress can be made on desegregating schools. The district lines are ethnically and racially drawn, so desegregation efforts need to happen across districts rather than within districts, he said.

Bloomfield added that one of the rejected recommendations, the creation of a Chief Integration Officer, was a “major mistake” because someone in that position could have focused on the city as a whole rather than the individual districts.

“[A city-wide plan] does require imagination and professional staff,” Bloomfield said. “That seems to be lacking in how the mayor sees desegregation efforts. In some ways it’s a plan for a plan, and it’s too late to be going so slow.”

Carranza has said that in his role as chancellor, he is the Chief Integration Officer.

Of the other of two recommendations the city did not adopt, that of moving the supervision of the School Safety Agents to the DOE from the NYPD, would have been beneficial in decreasing police presence in schools and students getting caught up in the criminal justice system as opposed to having more issues handled at their schools. Not long after the de Blasio administration announced it was accepting the 62 of 67 recommendations from the advisory group, it announced a new school discipline code and new agreement between the NYPD and DOE to lighten how students are policed in schools — the first update to that memorandum of understanding in about 20 years.

Given the lack of timelines for implementation, the advisory group recommendations form a “roadmap” for what the city wants to do rather than a plan with deadlines, Hemphill said. 

The recommendations also did not take on high schools and screened admissions policies.

Lander said while some of the recommendations are significant and are an overall positive step, they tackle the “lower hanging fruit.” He said there is room for the city to make changes in the admissions processes of high schools that use academic screens, which does not require changes in state law and is a “more thoughtful” approach to integration. 

The student advocacy group Teens Take Charge, which held a rally at the steps of the Tweed Courthouse, home to the DOE, calling for a high school integration plan four days before de Blasio announced the adoption of the recommendations, echoed Lander’s sentiment.

Soknadiarra Ndiaye, the chief operations officer of Teens Take Charge, said the group hopes the next set of recommendations due next month will deal with enrollment processes and high schools. The group set a June 26 deadline, the last day of school, for de Blasio to announce a comprehensive high school integration plan, and held a sit-in at City Hall when no such plan was announced. 

The Teens Take Charge campaign calls for the city to promote academic, racial, and socioeconomic integration at high schools by setting diversity thresholds in the admissions process that all high schools would have to meet. 

“When it comes to high school, one of the reasons why our high school system is so segregated is because of enrollment,” Ndiaye said. “So we’re hoping that [the city] will either adopt our policy or something similar to it.” 

City Council Member Mark Treyger, the chair of the Council’s education committee, said making changes to admissions processes is one way for the Department of Education to take steps forward on school integration without needing state lawmakers to change state law, which is necessary for tackling issues related to the three (of the eight) marquee specialized high schools and the SHSAT used for admissions (the state legislative session just ended with no movement on reforming the specialized schools’ admissions).

De Blasio has said he does not think it is wise to change the process at the five specialized high schools the city controls, pushing for state law changes to scrap the test in favor of multiple measures and criteria that would diversify the schools, home to high percentages of white and Asian students.

Treyger said he is “pleased” that the recommendations signal the city is moving forward on the issue, but added that “time is of the essence.”

“Every school year delayed is justice delayed and these are precious years that our students can never get back,” Treyger said. “There needs to be a real effort underway, not just to simply form another working group or have another study, but to really find ways to implement strategies right now that we know work.” 

Matt Gonzales, school diversity director at the nonprofit New York Appleseed and also a member of the city’s SDAG, said SDAG is writing the second report, which he said will take on high school policy and enrollment issues. He added that the group did not design the first set of recommendations to be the only plan they propose.

“I guess there’s a distrust that the advisory group isn’t going to follow through,” Gonzales said. “There was never an intention just to lay out this first report and wipe our hands.” 

The City’s Slow Progression
School integration was not on de Blasio’s platform when he ran for mayor in 2013, nor was it included in his “Equity and Excellence” education speech in 2015, though he discussed a number of education initiatives. Those programs, like Algebra for All and Computer Science for All and AP for All, are virtually all aimed at enhancing schools as they are currently constituted, while ignoring racial segregation, an approach some have called de Blasio’s version of ‘separate but equal.’

Pushed on not moving to desegregate city schools, de Blasio repeatedly said he had put a great deal in motion to improve schools. He also pointed to the historical constructs and sources of segregated schools and neighborhoods, and to the fact that many New Yorkers had made major life decisions, like buying homes, with the current school districts in mind. Those comments received significant criticism. 

Bloomfield said de Blaiso started to tackle the issue after years of increasing pressure from the public, advocates, and other city leaders. He added that the timing of the city moving forward also coincides with the arrival of Carranza, who prioritized the issue, as well as de Blasio’s reelection.

“He felt that he could risk some political capital on this initiative,” Bloomfield said of the Democratic mayor, now in his second and final term (and running for president).

The City Council, however, began to address school segregation issues in 2014, just after the UCLA report. In October of that year, Council Members Lander, Ritchie Torres, and Inez Barron introduced a package of legislation to draw attention to the lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools. The Council has no power to change admissions processes or school district lines, policies that are set by the mayoral-controlled Department of Education, technically a state entity, local parent education councils, and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which is mostly run by mayoral appointees.

Lander’s portion of the legislation included requiring the Department of Education to publicly report diversity metrics. Torres and Barron both introduced nonbinding resolutions that sought to officially declare diversity one of the Department of Education’s goals and to rewrite the law requiring the city’s specialized high schools to admit students based on an entrance exam. 

The Council passed the legislation, and in 2015 passed the School Diversity Accountability Act, which requires the Department of Education to annually report on steps they are taking to address school segregation. The Council has also held several hearings on the issue, including one in May. 

“We have been pushing for integration efforts for quite some time,” Treyger said. “And the City Council is limited in terms of its legislative authority in terms of DOE policies, but we do have oversight power. We’ve used it and we’ll use it again to hold the DOE accountable.”

Districts themselves have also implemented their own integration plans, with District 15 in Brooklyn and District 3 in Manhattan both enacting more inclusive admissions practices in their middle schools. 

No action was taken to further school integration by either the Department of Education or the mayor’s office until 2017, when de Blasio established the SDAG and set goals for more diverse schools. 

The 2017 diversity plan outlined diversity as a priority for the Department of Education and included short-term goals such as decreasing the number of economically stratified schools by 10 percent and increasing the number of schools that serve English Language Learners and students with disabilities. 

“It was very weak tea,” Lander said. “I mean, it was better than nothing, but the goals were very modest. And there was no reason to believe that the School Diversity Advisory Group would be real, would be meaningful would be independent with recommendations.” 

Lander said Carranza was key in giving the SDAG confidence to be bolder and move forward with proposing the recommendations in February 2019. 

Treyger said after some months had passed, he wanted to hold a hearing to find out where the administration stood on the recommendations. He said he, Speaker Corey Johnson, and other Council members were “frustrated” that the city was not ready to publicly weigh in yet. 

At the hearing held in May, Carranza testified that he needed to further discuss the recommendations with the SDAG before making a public announcement on which ones the DOE would adopt. A month later, the city announced the adoption of most of the recommendations.

Lander emphasized that this action comes after years of waiting, but the recommendations signal an intention that there will be more progress on the issue. 

“I’m glad we’re moving now,” Lander said. “I wish we started earlier.” 

Bloomfield said after the second report comes out in July, there could be months of waiting for the mayor to decide which portions of the proposal he wants to adopt. Though he said the progress that has been made now will make it more difficult for the city to stop the movement. 

“The significance is that it’s now squarely part of the city’s agenda,” Bloomfield said. “A new mayor will have a harder time putting the genie back in the bottle.”

‘A Witch Hunt’
Carranza has come under fire from some parents and City Council members following a lawsuit filed by three white veteran Department of Education administrators who claimed they were demoted because of their race, as well as anti-bias trainings that have become the subject of ire from some officials, the New York Post, and others.

A Post columnist, Bob McManus, wrote that Carranza’s agenda is all about “racial division” and that the anti-bias trainings are “white-bashing” sessions that have inflamed rather than eased race relations.” The Post editorial board has written several pieces critical of Carranza in recent months.

In a letter dated June 15, seven City Council members and two state Assembly members sent a letter to de Blasio saying if Carranza continues to “divide the city” then the mayor should replace him. Eight of the nine signers were white, and Council Member Robert Holden of Queens spearheaded the action. The other signator, Council Member Peter Koo, is Asian, and representative of a community that has taken issue with Carranza and de Blasio seeking to overhaul admissions to the specialized high schools, where Asian students are far overrepresented compared to their population in the city or larger school system.

For Council Member Daniel Dromm, a former teacher and former chair of the Council’s education committee, the situation was “almost predictable.”

“As soon as you start to talk about implicit bias or culturally responsive education, you could’ve put money on it that you’re going to get this kind of backlash,” Dromm said during a June 19 press conference held by both the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus and its Progressive Caucus. “Which is why no other chancellor would go near the issue to begin with.” 

In response to the letter, the Mayor de Blasio has said the chancellor is not going anywhere. He said on NY1’s Inside City Hall that the Council members “should have known better.” 

“[Carranza] is doing a great job,” de Blasio said. “I think a lot of people in this city really look up to him and are depending on him.” 

Several other Council members also released statements of support for Carranza. Lander said the New York Post is leading a “witch hunt” against the chancellor. 

Others have echoed Dromm’s sentiment that much of the backlash Carranza has received is a nature of his progressive agenda. Gonzales said the New York Post is trying to “discredit” the chancellor as he pushes a progressive agenda.

“Everything that’s been happening in response, I don’t think now that any of this was a response to any particular one thing,” Gonzales said. ‘It’s just a response to who he is, and how bold he has been about identity, how that informs the work he does, and the prioritization of a racial justice agenda.” 

Carranza, who is of Mexican descent, said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on June 11 that the letter is “just a distraction.” He said he will continue to work on making sure all students have access to the same opportunities, a goal outlined in the 62 recommendations the city accepted.

“It’s always often kind of rich when there are inequities happening in a system and the minute you start pointing out those inequities and actually working to change those inequities it becomes divisive,” Carranza said on the show. “I’ve never seen how you can improve a system without identifying what the issues are in the system, and you can’t fix the inequities without talking about them.”

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bySamantha Handler, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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'We're Moving Now': City Pursues School Desegregation Measures, with Major Looming Test Thu, 27 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
At Stonewall 50, Ensuring Students Know the Real Story of Our City and See Themselves in Its History https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8646-at-stonewall-50-ensuring-students-know-the-real-story-of-our-city-and-see-themselves-in-its-history https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8646-at-stonewall-50-ensuring-students-know-the-real-story-of-our-city-and-see-themselves-in-its-history harvey feinstein hosts

Council Member Daniel Dromm, the author (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


New York City is among the most diverse places in the country. It is home to more than 3 million foreign-born residents, 200 languages, 80 religious affiliations, and countless individuals who are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. Our city should celebrate the diversity that defines New York, including teaching young people about our extraordinarily rich history and culture.

Fortunately, there is already a model that can show us the way forward. Culturally responsive education (CRE) aligns educational curricula with students’ backgrounds and life experiences. The education with which we equip the next generation should enable our students to connect their classroom studies to their lived experiences. Moreover, it should instill confidence in our students of their own identities so that they may see how others like themselves have contributed to America’s history.

This Sunday, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising and the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ movement. Out of this movement emerged two prophetic voices: Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Both of these transwomen of color were at the Stonewall Inn during the clashes with police and participated in numerous protest rallies and marches in the aftermath.

They were known for founding STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and supporting LGBTQ+ homeless individuals. The city will soon immortalize Johnson’s and Rivera’s places in history with a monument in Greenwich Village. However, too few New Yorkers, including students in our schools, know about these civil rights heroes and their work protecting and empowering the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our society.

CRE asks us to view the accolades of historical figures such as Harlem Renaissance performer Gladys Bentley and 1963 March on Washington architect Bayard Rustin in the context of their lives. They were queer people of color who overcame tremendous obstacles, long before Pride marches and Black Lives Matter. They are fascinating figures worthy of study precisely because of the multiple identities and the various environments they had to navigate.

Recognizing the complexity of such persons and promoting their stories allow the youth of New York City to find themselves in history. Amending school curricula and changing reading lists to reflect the contributions of a wide variety of Americans creates an environment that celebrates the richness of New York’s many communities. It also fosters a more welcoming classroom and an education that is personally relevant to our students.

In this way, CRE is truly student-centered learning. It keeps our students – particularly those who feel least included – engaged in and attuned to the accomplishments of those sidelined by the traditional narrative of American history and culture.

City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has agreed to accept the School Diversity Advisory Group recommendation to have CRE imbedded into all schools for all grades, welcome news indeed. I encourage the New York City Department of Education to implement it as soon as possible and ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity are fully integrated.

We deprive our students when we do not tell them the truth about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. All of our schools need to embrace CRE and prepare the next generation for a future where well-informed, critically-thinking citizens and residents will be even more desperately needed.

***
Daniel Dromm is a former New York City public school teacher and represents the communities of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst in the City Council. On Twitter @Dromm25.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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At Stonewall 50, Ensuring Students Know the Real Story of Our City and See Themselves in Its History Thu, 27 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Effort Launched to Elect LGBTQ Members to City Council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8543-effort-launched-to-elect-lgbt-members-to-the-city-council https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8543-effort-launched-to-elect-lgbt-members-to-the-city-council  

ritchietorres ch230

 (photo: @RitchieTorres)


On the steps of City Hall Wednesday afternoon, a coalition of LGBTQ rights advocates and current and former City Council members announced the launch of an initiative to elect queer candidates to the Council in 2021, when 35 seats will be open because of term limits.

There are currently five members of the 51-member City Council who identify as LGBT, all of whom are a part of the body’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus, and all of whom are not elligible for reelection to the Council: Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Members Danny Dromm, Ritchie Torres, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Carlos Menchaca.

The effort launched Wednesday, dubbed “LGBTQ in 2021,” is intended to ensure that the outgoing cohort of Council members from the queer community is replaced by another, larger, and more diverse group of LGBTQ electeds.

“We want to make sure that we elect lesbians to the City Council, we want to ensure that we elect transgender women to the City Council, we want to ensure we elect LGBT people of color to the City Council,” Speaker Johnson, who is openly gay and HIV positive, said to cheers from the audience assembled.

A number of other Council members were also present at the press conference, including Dromm and Torres of the LGBT Caucus, as well as former Council Members Tom Duane, who was the first openly gay person elected to the City Council, and Elizabeth Crowley, who has helped spearhead the “21 in ‘21” initiative to elect more women to the City Council, which was the inspiration for the project announced Monday. The City Council currently has 12 women out of its 51 members.

In the next City Council election in 2021, at least 35 of the body’s 51 seats will be open, meaning no incumbent will be running.

Whereas incumbents enjoy incredibly high reelection rates, races for open seats tend to be vastly more competitive, often comprising more candidates and resulting in narrower margins of victory. Initiatives like LGBTQ in 2021 and 21 in ‘21 are harnessing the opportunities of open seats at the same time that they are meant to combat any loss in representation that may result.

Coming out is “the deepest political thing anyone can do. And that goes for people who are out in legislative bodies. There is no substitute for a seat at the table,” Duane said at the press conference. “We have elected people here in New York City, but we have many more people that we need to get elected to the City Council.”

The coalition, which also includes LGBTQ Democratic political clubs like the Stonewall Demorats and advocacy groups like New York Transgender Advocacy Group and Queer-Amisú, plans to recruit and support queer candidates to run for City Council through training, mentorship, and networking resources. At the moment, LGBTQ in 2021 has a social media presence but an informal operational structure as its members determine its direction. It is currently focused on City Council elections, but may expand its mission in the future.

“It’s only been ten years since Queens has had openly gay elected officials,” Dromm reminded the crowd, after acknowledging Duane and other predecessors as rolemodels for him. “And of course we began to see the Council expand in terms of the numbers of openly LGBT people who were in it.”

“Invisibility is our biggest enemy,” Dromm added. “We had no role models in those days.”

Members of the coalition have drawn lessons from their personal experiences and those of activists in a number of overlapping and intersecting causes -- namely the struggle for LGBTQ rights in New York and nationally, but also the Civil Rights Movement and movements for gender equity.

Melissa Sklarz, a transgender activist, 2018 Assembly candidate from Queens, and former president of the Stonewall Democrats, spoke after Dromm. “I don’t think invisibility is a problem. It’s fear! ‘I can’t run for office, Melissa, I don’t know what to do.’ We’ve got a solution for that. We know what to do. We’ve been involved, we have passion, and vision, and experience, and intelligence. We will help you.”

Torres, a Bronx Democrat planning to run for Congress in the 2020 election, emphasized the active nature of this type of recruitment and mentorship operation. “Progress doesn’t happen by accident. We have to organize for it, we have to fight for it, we have to recruit candidates, raise funds, knock on doors, and win elections,” Torres said. (Sklarz later told reporters that LGBTQ in 2021 does not have plans to raise money for candidates, but intends to educate them on how to create a campaign, and can assist with staffing and grassroots efforts in their neighborhoods.)

Along with the aforementioned groups, the coalition includes Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Lesbian Gay Democratic Club of Queens, Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, NYC Pride and Power, and LGBT Democrats of Color.

“One of the epiphanies of the Civil Rights Movement is the realization that progress is not inevitable even when it has the aura of inevitability,” Torres observed. “We had more LGBT members of the City Council two years ago than we do today. Or when it comes to gender inequality...we had more women in the City Council in the 1990s than we do today.”

Despite overall progress made in LGBTQ representation in New York City elected office, members of the coalition pointed to significant shortcomings in the political landscape and barriers that still need to be overcome.

Ivy Frias of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group wondered why “only one letter of the LGBT community is represented here in the City Council,” referring to the fact that the City Council’s current queer membership are all gay men. “I think it’s time, as a queer, nonbinary, Dominican person, to tell you guys that it’s time to be here,” Frias said, adding later, “the LGBT community is beautifully diverse and intersectional.”

Sklarz also identified barriers. When asked whether she intends to run for City Council after her unsuccessful bid for the Assembly last year, she told Gotham Gazette, “Where I live is a difficult Council race. Neighborhood is everything. So however big my visage may be in the LGBT community, it’s very difficult in my neighborhood to run for City Council.” The 22nd Council District in Queens, where Sklarz lives, has been represented by Costa Constantinides since 2014 and has never had an openly queer Council member. Constantinides is term-limited and likely to run for Queens Borough President.

Those dynamics at the neighborhood level can play out in the Council itself. “There continues to be places in New York City where even vicious homophobes can be and have been elected to the City Council,” Torres told the crowd. “The homophobic antics of [City Council Member] Ruben Diaz Sr. is a cautionary tale of what happens when we, as a community, take for granted the inevitability of progress.” (Diaz Sr., who was recently punished by the Council for his latest homophobic remarks, is seeking the same congressional seat as Torres.)

“If you think someone’s going to come and save the day for you, then you’re naive. We’re not going take that chance,” Sklarz said to applause. “LGBT people are going to come together, we are going to create a moment, we are going to take care of our own, and make sure something happens.”

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette      

Read more by this writer.

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Effort Launched to Elect LGBTQ Members to City Council Wed, 22 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's Budget Savings Plan Contains Few Real Efficiencies, Experts Say https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8526-de-blasio-s-budget-savings-plan-contains-minimal-real-efficiencies-experts-say https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8526-de-blasio-s-budget-savings-plan-contains-minimal-real-efficiencies-experts-say Mayor de Blasio city budget executive plan

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio’s much-touted budget savings program is not what he has made it seem.

After rapidly growing the budget over his first five years in office and resisting calls to find significant efficiencies at city agencies, de Blasio this year instituted his first “program to eliminate the gap,” or PEG, to achieve hundreds of millions of dollars in “savings.” But though the mayor boasted at his executive budget presentation of $916 million in identified savings over the current and next fiscal years -- including $629 million in agency PEG savings -- his budget has little by way of true city agency cuts to existing spending.

The mayor’s spendthrift approach has led to a $20 billion increase in the city budget since he took power, while savings and rainy day funds, though solid, have remained below optimal levels, according to budget experts. Exceedingly good economic times have allowed the mayor to spend somewhat lavishly on programs and personnel without having to make many tough decisions about cuts.

The city is also maintaining about $5.72 billion in reserves each year, though the mayor has not added to them this year and the City Council is pushing for an additional $250 million infusion.

The mayor’s latest spending plan, a whopping $92.5 billion executive budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, is no exception to his spending growth trend. And as de Blasio touts new savings, fiscal watchdogs are casting doubts and poking holes.

One in particular, Citizens Budget Commission, says city budget officials are misclassifying savings, passing off re-estimated spending and cost shifts as efficiencies at city agencies.

Instituting a targeted PEG for the first time this year, de Blasio required city agencies to make specific spending reductions through various means -- efficiencies, re-estimates of spending and revenue, and service reductions. The mandated PEG, with target amounts for each agency set by the mayor’s budget office, came after years of the administration relying on a Citywide Savings Plan, which had agencies offer voluntary savings, re-estimates, and revenue-raising ideas.

All told, the mayor’s executive budget estimated the $916 million in savings between fiscal years 2019 ($419 millions) and 2020 ($496 million). An analysis by Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, of the overall savings plan shows that for 2020 the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget identified about 62.5% of the savings from what it classified as agency efficiencies.

Melanie Hartzog, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, in testimony before the City Council at a budget hearing last month, stressed the “high levels of efficiency savings” at city agencies that were found through the PEG. That included service reduction for the first time under de Blasio.

“In Fiscal Year 2020, the first full year impacted by the PEG, efficiencies account for two-thirds of the savings. To achieve these savings agencies streamlined and improved practices, yet maintained service levels,” she said.

But CBC’s analysis shows that the estimate of efficiencies in the executive budget savings plan may be overblown. Agency efficiencies in fiscal year 2020 only accounted for about 20.77% of the savings, while re-estimates and funding shifts accounted for the bulk, about 66.4%, according to the analysis, performed by CBC’s Riley Edwards.

City Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee, echoed CBC’s concerns about finding true efficiencies at last month’s budget hearing, saying the Council “is struggling to understand the purpose of the PEG.” He noted, as CBC pointed out, that the PEG and savings plan together did not find sufficient efficiencies or recurring savings at agencies. He noted that PEGs are supposed to force administrations to find “true efficiencies and recurring savings.”

Dromm pointed out that the mayor has typically relied on the voluntary CSP instead of a PEG, during a period of healthy growth and positive economic conditions.

“Since the implementation of that program, the Council has been urging the administration to search for savings more rigorously because the majority of the program consisted of accruals, re-estimates, and increased revenue projections that would have occurred even in the absence of a savings program,” Dromm added. “So, when the administration announced a mandatory PEG this year, the Council was hopeful that the mayor was finally getting serious about reining in inefficient spending. Unfortunately, the result of the PEG is just more of the same.”

CBC experts point out that certain categories of savings that OMB classifies as efficiencies aren’t truly that, including swaps where state or federal funds are used in place of city funds or the hiring freeze that OMB says saved about $116 million across fiscal years 2019 and 2020. According to OMB, the hiring freeze involves permanently taking down 1,600 positions in the executive budget (many are currently filled and will be eliminated when they become vacant without affecting agency performance) after 1,000 vacancies were already eliminated in November. The freeze reduced net planned headcount growth this year for the first time under de Blasio and is meant to create savings every year till 2023.

“Because we’re dealing with positions that are already vacant, we consider that a re-estimate rather than an efficiency,” said CBC’s Edwards, in a phone interview.

CBC director of city studies Ana Champeny said this savings plan has largely been a “continuation” of past years’ plans. “There was a change in their approach in setting the targets for the agencies but they still haven’t delivered substantially more efficiency savings,” she said. According to CBC, these could be achieved through redesigning programs and shrinking or eliminating inefficient ones, as the mayor did by eliminating Extended Time Learning at Renewal and RISE schools; by using technology to improve operations; sharing resources across agencies; finding alternative service providers within or outside the public sector; and strengthening centralized management of cross-agency operations.

Champeny said the city should not stop looking for savings through re-estimates or funding shifts, which are “routine budget management that you would expect every administration to be doing. Our criticism is that there should be more PEG savings, more efficiency savings in addition to this routine budget and fiscal management.”

Ideally, efficiency savings in one year would equal about one percent of the city-funded budget, she said. “That’s about $700 million in one year, not across two years,” she said.

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank, concurred. “I think the PEG is pretty superficial in the context of this larger budget,” she said, noting that the executive budget increases overall agency spending by about $1.4 billion compared to the mayor’s initial proposal released in January, allowed by higher revenues than earlier projections. Those higher revenues “are giving them some room to increase spending while sticking to this narrative of savings,” she said. “Overall, agency spending is not shrinking by any means. It would be hard to call this an austerity program.”

“It would be good if agency spending pretty much kept pace with inflation, going up 1.5-2% a year,” she said.

Budget watchdogs have also repeatedly urged the administration to find long-term recurring savings rather than temporary ones. Gelinas pointed out that hiring freezes, in particular, “don’t last forever” as a source of savings.

“It’s kind of superficial because the mayor has increased hiring by so much already that it’s kinda time for a pause,” she said. “Hiring freezes are not very good management. This is the same problem at the MTA. If you need a new person to do something, you should hire that person. If there’s something that the government is doing that it shouldn’t be doing anymore, repurpose that person. But just a sort of general hiring freeze oftentimes means positions that should be filled aren’t being filled. So it’s kind of the opposite of efficient.” 

De Blasio has overseen a large increase in the city workforce, from about 297,000 employees when he took office to roughly 332,000 now. Still, he has budgeted for many more positions at various agencies that have gone unfilled each year, with many of those now “frozen” and the act of keeping them empty being counted toward savings.

OMB spokesperson Michael Greenberg said in a statement Tuesday, “Our aggressive approach helped us meet ongoing, fundamental needs, and balance the budget. We will continue to find ways to save money for New Yorkers in future financial plans.”

In a Thursday statement, after this article was published, Greenberg pushed back against the criticism from Gelinas and CBC. "The 2,600 positions we have permanently eliminated since November will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings, much of it recurring annually, and agencies will provide the same level of service with fewer employees. Despite what others might say, this is the actual definition of 'efficiency savings,'" he said. 

Short of creating more efficiencies, the city risks major service reductions should an economic downturn set in. Even without a downturn, the city faces a budget gap of $3.5 billion in 2021 and $3 billion annually in the years after, according to its own documents. While those numbers are manageable and fairly typical, they become much more concerning if there is a recession.

“A recession could easily double or triple these out-year budget gaps that we already need to fill,” Champeny said. “Right now you have the ability to take the time and do a careful analysis of where you can make efficiency changes or improve your processes whereas if you’re cutting during a recession, you’re sometimes looking for quick savings and you’re not as precise and you’re going to have more negative impacts in services reduction.”

Gelinas added, “The city always depends on revenues coming in higher than expected and then because it says it conservatively budgeted, it has these extra revenues. So these budget deficits basically disappear. But that only happens if the city’s economy is doing well. If we do fall into a recession...then suddenly these are real deficits so you’d need a lot more than a billion dollars in savings in two years. So that’s when you really start to see layoffs and service cuts.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with additional details about the administration's partial hiring freeze. 

Note - This article has been updated with additional comment from OMB spokesperson Michael Greenberg. 

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De Blasio's Budget Savings Plan Contains Few Real Efficiencies, Experts Say Tue, 14 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Pushes Its Priorities at First Hearing on De Blasio's Executive Budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8504-city-council-pushes-its-priorities-at-first-hearing-on-de-blasio-s-executive-budget https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8504-city-council-pushes-its-priorities-at-first-hearing-on-de-blasio-s-executive-budget spk co jo exec bud

Council Member Dromm and Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


The New York City Council and budget officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration engaged in a familiar push-and-pull on Monday, at the first hearing on the $92.5 billion executive budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The Council, disappointed that many of its priorities were not included in the latest spending plan presented by the mayor, pushed for more funding and pointed to hundreds of millions in revenue available to the city, but officials from the Office of Management and Budget urged restraint as they emphasized the dangers of a slowing economy and insisted the Council’s revenue estimate was far rosier than their own.

De Blasio presented his executive budget last month with $300 million more in proposed spending than his preliminary plan released in February. The $92.5 billion proposal would mark yet another record high in city spending, up nearly $3.4 billion from the current fiscal year and about $20 billion from the budget that de Blasio inherited from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The budget included, for the first time under de Blasio, a PEG (Program to Eliminate the Gap) that identified $629 million in savings in agency spending.

But the executive budget excludes funding for most of the items that the City Council had listed in its response, issued last month, to de Blasio’s preliminary budget plan, and Council members made their frustration clear at Monday’s hearing.

The Council found the executive budget “incredibly insulting,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in his opening remarks. The Council had called for pay parity and wage equity for several categories of city-funded workers (including nonprofit human service providers, assistant district attorneys, indigent defense attorneys, and daycare workers), investments in a variety of social service and local programs, $250 million more in reserves, more transparency across the budget, and 100 percent “Fair Student Funding” to aid local schools.

Johnson noted that though most of the Council’s priorities were ignored, “The Administration saw fit to implement our ideas from the response for how to save money, and then took those savings to fund even more of the mayor’s priorities.”

Even requests that would have cost nothing -- for instance, more transparency for multi-agency programs such as ThriveNYC, and spending on the new ferry system -- were rejected, Johnson said.

He did, however, point to a bright spot in the negotiations with the administration. The Council had called for continuing $155 million in “one-shot” funding that is in the current fiscal year budget for various purposes -- adult literacy programs, summer youth employment, post-arrest diversion programs, social workers for homeless students, and more. After the Council’s push, the city added $77 million to restore some of those programs, but Johnson indicated that negotiations would be tough regardless.

“Typically, we try to get this budget adopted by the first week of June. I doubt that’s possible and I’m willing to wait until just before July 1,” Johnson said, referring to the start of the next fiscal year and the deadline for approving the budget. “This needs to be done the right way,” he added. Over the next few weeks, the Council will continue to examine the budget at agency-specific hearings where administration officials will testify, while public rallies are held and op-eds are written advocating for certain expenditures and private negotiations continue among stakeholders.

A central dispute of the hearing was over the amount of revenue available to the city from personal income tax collections, which came in higher than earlier projections. Through April, the city received $474 million more than initially estimated, which the Council repeatedly said should be put to use to fund their demands. But OMB Director Melanie Hartzog repeatedly pointed out that other tax revenue came in lower, and that actual revenues only increased by about $200 million.

“We continue to face uncertainty related to economic conditions at home and abroad,” Hartzog said in her opening remarks, pointing to a weak housing market and slowing consumption. She emphasized that much of the new spending in the budget was required because of $300 million in unfunded mandates and cost shifts from the state, and about $150 million in additional needs that were not factored in to the preliminary budget.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, chair of the finance committee, didn’t hold back in criticizing the executive budget’s approach towards the Council, pointing out that the Council had urged the administration for years to rein in costs, increase reserves, and find agency efficiencies. He noted that the PEG made cuts in areas where the Council wanted more spending, including cultural institutions, youth services, and senior centers.

“The PEG was couched in the context of a potentially worsening economic position for the city and the need for us all to tighten our belts in anticipation,” he added. “So what is truly baffling is that in light of this sentiment, the administration has chosen not to add even a single dollar towards our reserves.” That increases the likelihood, he said, that the administration will have to slash services when an economic downturn hits in earnest.

“It was a challenging budget,” Hartzog said, a position she had to repeatedly rely on as Council members pressed her on a slew of specific priorities, whether funding for social workers and guidance counsellors in schools, or support services for youth in the foster care system. She did however promise to work with the Council in finding more savings and to address their individual issues.

And the issues were many. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the cultural affairs committee, said $6 million in proposed cuts to cultural institutions were “disrespectful to this body.” Hartzog said they were “relatively modest,” noting that the overall budget for those institutions is about $139 million and that the administration wanted to avoid cuts in library service. 

Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of the education committee, lambasted the lack of funding for pay parity for universal pre-kindergarten teachers, Title IX coordinators, for busing for foster care students, for new school counsellors, to baseline Teacher’s Choice funding, and more education-related programs. “How can you say this is a schools-not-jails budget?,” he wondered, with apparent reference to the fact that the mayor’s updated capital budget plan, $117 billion over 10 years, includes billions in funding for jail construction as the city moves off of Rikers Island.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal noted that nonprofit service providers need at least $250 million more from the city or they risk fiscal insolvency. Hartzog, in response, noted that the de Blasio administration previously gave nonprofit providers cost-of-living-raises for the first time in years and that the administration is negotiating issues with the nonprofit sector. 

Council Member Barry Grodenchik, chair of the parks committee, said the parks and recreation budget “continues to go sideways,” and called for modest and targeted investments in parks infrastructure.

Council Members Carlina Rivera and Carlos Menchaca, co-chairs of the Council’s census task force, called for more funding for 2020 Census outreach, insisting that the $26 million over two years that the administration is funding is inadequate compared to the Council’s $40 million request. Hartzog said the amount was sufficient -- $8 million will go to community-based organizations, $10 million to a media outreach campaign and the rest to staffing needs -- particularly in tandem with $20 million in overall state funding, but said the administration was open to adding more funding if needed down the line.

Hartzog told Council Member Mark Levine that funding for so-called safe injection sites wasn’t included because the city was waiting for approval from the state health department.

The OMB director did agree to providing a measure of more transparency in the budget, and said her office had identified 34 new units of appropriation at the Council’s urging.

Hartzog similarly said the administration had made new “Capital Detail Data Reports” available online, in response to a request from Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the subcommittee on the capital budget. Gibson and others have critiqued the city’s ten-year capital planning process, insisting that it frontloads investments in early years and underfunds them in the second half of the plan. The ten-year capital plan reached $116.9 billion in the executive budget, of which 78% is planned for the first five years, Gibson noted.

But Hartzog said the city was working to distribute capital spending more evenly, with $3.9 billion redistributed from fiscal years 2019-2021 into later years. The administration has also proposed rescinding $2.3 billion pledged in previous capital budgets, she said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Pushes Its Priorities at First Hearing on De Blasio's Executive Budget Mon, 06 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Preliminary Budget Hearings End with City Council Clamor for More Detail on Agency Cuts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8410-preliminary-city-budget-hearings-end-with-council-clamor-for-more-detail-on-agency-cuts https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8410-preliminary-city-budget-hearings-end-with-council-clamor-for-more-detail-on-agency-cuts council holds prelim

OMB Director Hartzog testifies (photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council)


As usual, the City Council’s March agenda was mostly dominated by preliminary budget hearings, evaluating the mayor’s initial spending plan for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. This stage of the city budget process started and finished with a general hearing held by the Council’s Finance Committee, along with its Capital Budget Subcommittee, with a series of more specific agency- and service-related hearings in between.

The preliminary budget hearings finished where they began, with Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, and other Council members looking for more details about cuts and efficiencies the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to make across city agencies. When he presented a $92.2 billion preliminary budget in early February, de Blasio said he was instituting a $750 million PEG (program to eliminate the (budget) gap), the first PEG of de Blasio’s tenure, during which a very healthy economy has allowed the mayor and Council to increase spending very quickly, while also keeping reserves fairly high.

But where will that $750 million come from? De Blasio and his top budget officials said they would give each agency, from the NYPD to the Department of Education, targets to meet and there would be more detail by the mayor’s executive budget, which is due toward the end of April. Yet City Council members want more detail now.

The PEG was brought on, the mayor said, because the city’s recent revenue collections have not met the Office of Management and Budget’s growth projections. The city collected $46.5 billion in revenue for the previous fiscal year, which was a 1.2% increase from the year before. However, OMB had forecasted a 2.6% growth rate.

At the City Council’s final preliminary budget hearing, Jacques Jiha, the commissioner of the Department of Finance (DOF), attributed this to the “weakness” in personal income tax collection (especially senior payments) and the “softness” of unincorporated business tax collection. Jiha also noted the recent inversion of the bond yield curve, which could signal a potential recession, as another sign that “the budget should be approached with caution.”

City budget director Melanie Hartzog later echoed Jiha’s cautionary tone, highlighting three “economic risks” that led to the PEG. She clarified -- and repeatedly stressed -- that OMB and economists are forecasting an “economic slow-down,” not a recession, amid a national economy that has appeared vulnerable in recent years. Still, she called such a slow-down “a substantial threat to the budget.” Second, she also attributed the slowing of city revenue growth to a decline in income tax collections, noting recent changes to the federal tax code.

Finally, Hartzog also discussed OMB’s expectations that state and federal contributions to the city budget would decline. According to Hartzog, the mayor’s executive budget will include cuts to health care and education programs unless the city can secure additional funding from the state. Also, while President Trump’s budget proposal would be detrimental to the city, OMB does not believe that it will pass through Congress. Hartzog said OMB would work with the city’s congressional representatives to secure federal funding.

Council Finance Chair Danny Dromm, a Queens Democrat, said that he hoped Hartzog’s testimony would answer questions that came up in previous budget hearings over the past month. Speaker Johnson summarized the previous month’s hearings by saying that “most agency heads were unwilling or unable” to discuss what would be affected by the city’s $750 million PEG. When Hartzog said that these details would appear in de Blasio’s executive budget, Johnson said that he was “incredibly frustrated to be stonewalled.”

Many questions that Council members had at the first preliminary budget hearing still went unanswered at the final preliminary budget hearing. Hartzog said that it was “too early in the process” for the Council to be given details about what particular cuts will be made at each agency. Agencies have submitted their preliminary drafts for savings, but the OMB still has to review those proposals. Similarly, Hartzog could not yet answer what percentage of the cuts would affect services and programs.

Dromm said that cuts to programs such as summer employment for students and adult literacy “will be a non-starter.” Johnson agreed that the Council would not support cuts that would affect “vulnerable New Yorkers.” He warned Hartzog, “I don’t want a level of game-playing” over cuts and said that it would “be a big waste of time.” Hartzog said that “neither I nor the mayor want to play that budget dance.”

When asked if she was confident that the city’s reserves would be able to prevent budget cuts to programs during a potential recession, Hartzog reiterated that economists were forecasting an economic slow-down not an economic recession and that she had confidence in the city “weathering an economic slow down” without programmatic cuts.

Hartzog appeared less concerned about the potential for a recession than Johnson. Like Jiha previously stated, Johnson noted that an inversion of the bond yield curve is usually an indicator of an approaching recession. Hartzog conceded that a recession was “certainly possible,” but said that economists were forecasting a slow down, which would not be as severe. She also took the opportunity to state that the city has “built up our reserves and continued to have savings plans” during economic growth periods.

Johnson brought up a Citizens Budget Commission report, which said that a recession could cause revenue shortfalls of $15-20 billion over three years. This would use up the entirety of the city’s reserves. When asked if the administration thought that more should be added to the reserves, Hartzog reiterated that the reserves were sufficient to weather an economic slow down and said that the city was planning to add to the reserves moving forward.

Johnson also called out a New York Post article that claimed the city “is careening closer to all-out financial bankruptcy.” Johnson called the article “irresponsible” and Hartzog concurred. “We think there does need to be a level of improvement in transparency,” Johnson said, suggesting that OMB should provide “best estimates” of future revenue reserves because of OMB’s tendency towards conservative estimates. Hartzog said she does not believe that would be necessary.

Between the testimonies of Jiha and Hartzog, Lorraine Grillo made her first appearance before a City Council committee as commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC). Grillo has also retained her role as head of the School Construction Authority (SCA), therefore leading the two main city agencies responsible for construction projects. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the Capital Budget Subcommittee, praised the SCA under Grillo’s leadership for its “strong capital delivery.”

Grillo told the committee that the varied scale of projects, which include everything from sewers to playgrounds, presented a challenge for the DDC, which she said “should not neglect smaller projects,” because many affect New Yorkers’ quality of life. She also expressed frustration that the state has not granted “blanket design-build authority” for the city’s capital projects, saying that it would streamline the capital delivery process.

Jamie Torres-Springer, the first deputy DDC Commissioner, said that the state’s granting of design-build authority for the construction of four community-based jails, which are planned to replace the Rikers Island jails is “a really important opportunity for the city “to demonstrate the effectiveness” of design-build. Grillo added, “but imagine if we could use it for all projects?”

Grillo also noted that there are “layers of policy and red tape” at DDC that SCA does not have. She has ordered an agency-wide review. She also pointed to the DDC’s Strategic Blueprint, which she labeled a “far-reaching plan” and “broad outline of improvements” with “common-sense fixes.” One area of improvement that she highlighted was front-end planning. The DDC has expanded its front-end planning unit and now works with agencies before they submit their project initiation requests. According to Grillo, “we are beginning to see a difference.”

With preliminary budget hearings over, the next steps in the city budget process are seeing the results of the new state budget, due by April 1, followed by the City Council releasing its formal preliminary budget response. Soon after, the mayor will release his executive budget plan, setting off another round of Council hearings as well as public and private negotiations.

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Preliminary Budget Hearings End with City Council Clamor for More Detail on Agency Cuts Fri, 29 Mar 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Pushes on De Blasio Savings Program During First Budget Hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8331-city-council-pushes-on-de-blasio-savings-program-during-first-budget-hearing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8331-city-council-pushes-on-de-blasio-savings-program-during-first-budget-hearing city council j mccarten premlim

(Photo: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson appeared frustrated on Wednesday with the de Blasio administration budget at the Council’s first hearing to examine the mayor’s $92.2 billion preliminary budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1 of this year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio released his preliminary budget proposal last month warning of the “tough choices” the city faces as it heads towards an economic slowdown, with revenues already coming in lower than last year. For the first time since he took office, the mayor instituted a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG), which is meant to find the majority of $750 million in additional savings the mayor promised by the time the executive budget is released in April.

Nonetheless, the mayor’s budget increases spending by $3 billion owing largely to costs from new contracts with labor unions, education spending, debt service costs, and fringe benefits. There are few new initiatives that add costs, while the threat of state budget cuts and cost shifts continue to loom -- the state is in a tougher fiscal situation than the city. The de Blasio administration also did not include any additional allocations to the city’s reserves, which remain strong but not as robust as some watchdogs believe they must be in order to withstand a recession.

“The Council agrees that we need to be cautious but that caution needs to be exercised with precision,” Johnson said in his opening remarks at Wednesday’s hearing, worried about the possibility that the mayor’s PEG program could lead to cuts in social services. He criticized Melanie Hartzog, director of the Office of Management and Budget, for her lack of specific answers about the PEG, and expressed frustration that the mayor seemed intent on finding millions of dollars in such savings after years of having ignored similar calls from the City Council.

Johnson also noted that the mayor’s signature initiatives, such as universal pre-kindergarten, 3-K, and the ThriveNYC mental health plan spearheaded by First Lady Chirlane McCray “are flush with funding” and safe from the PEG, compared with the rest of the budget. “Just because a program or initiative is new, transformative, or a mayoral priority, should not shield it from oversight,” he said. “The Council is not a rubber stamp. Everyone else is being asked to tighten their belts, while a few key initiatives seem exempt.”

“Everything must go under a microscope,” he said of the PEG program, but insisting that the city should not take away funding from agencies “where funding is already spread thin and agencies are already struggling to meet their core missions.” He noted that, as a result of the city’s focus on particular priorities, other larger issues are ignored. For instance, the de Blasio administration has focused on affordable housing through the Housing New York plan but NYCHA residents continue to live in deplorable conditions, he said. “Inattention to issues considered secondary and to longstanding problems can lead to a remarkable phenomenon of governing by monitor,” he said. “There are now federal monitors for NYCHA, the FDNY hiring process, the city’s jails, and police reform, to name a few.”

Hartzog, the administration’s top budget official, acknowledged early on in response to Johnson’s questioning that the city may have to find additional savings once the state budget is finalized (it is due by April 1) and personal income tax revenues become clearer.

Of the $750 million savings target, she said $544 million constituted the PEG and was to come from agencies finding efficiencies and cuts (the rest will be achieved through continuing a partial hiring freeze the mayor put in place last year and through debt service payments). Those target amounts for individual agencies were released on Tuesday. They include, for instance, $123 million from uniformed forces including the NYPD, FNDY and others; Health and welfare agencies, including the Administration for Children's Services and Health + Hospitals, will have to find nearly $147 million in savings; The DOE and CUNY will have to identify $110 million; Agencies in charge of housing and economic development will have to find $52 million in savings; Another $40 million will have to come from infrastructure, libraries and cultural institutions; and several other agencies will together have to find about $70 million. Even the mayor's office will reduce spending, by about $1.6 million. 

But Hartzog could not specifically say where each agency would have to look, which frustrated Johnson. “If we’re gonna have a real hearing on these cuts and do our job of oversight on the city’s budget, we can’t have a conversation with you today about whether those cuts make sense or are valuable when you’re not giving us specific programs,” he said. “This is strange to me.”

Hartzog, though, emphasized that OMB was working with agencies on the PEG and would have all the information by the executive budget. “This is not anything new that we have done,” she said.

Tensions seemed to rise between Johnson and Hartzog at times, including when he suggested that top OMB officials don’t treat Council finance staff with respect and have long ignored the Council’s recommendations on finding new revenues and agency efficiencies. When Hartzog refused to state her opinion on the city’s dearth of funding for outreach efforts for the 2020 Census, Johnson asked rhetorically, “Why are we having this hearing?”

Johnson and his colleagues, Council Member Daniel Dromm, who chairs the finance committee, and Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the capital budget subcommittee, also raised concerns about the city’s ten-year capital strategy and the lack of planned investments in the latter half of the plan.

Dromm pointed to several expenses that were missing from the budget including discretionary Council funding, which was $391.3 million last year; additional costs for school bus services as the Department of Education is in the process of securing new contracts; several one-time education programs funded up to $122.6 million last year; and an overtime budget worth $1.3 billion, $400 million lower than the average overtime spending from the last five years.

“More than ever we need to keep growing our reserves to protect against shortfalls and painful mid-year cuts to vital services,” he said. “Indeed, we can’t afford not to.”

Gibson, whose subcommittee was created last year to specifically examine the problem-ridden capital process, said the administration “continues to fail to comply with the letter and the spirit of our charter” in providing the necessary documents about the capital budget. The $104.1 billion preliminary ten-year capital strategy is $14.5 billion more than the last ten-year strategy that was approved by the Council.

Hartzog did have one piece of good news about the city’s capital budget. She noted that Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the city’s general obligation bond rating, which would lower the city’s borrowing costs. Dromm later said the Council projected about $343 million in savings from that rating upgrade though OMB did not have its own projection.

But the strategy, Gibson said, includes several instances of “unrealistic planning,” noting that $75.5 billion or 72.6 percent of the ten-year capital strategy is outlined for just the first five years. For instance, it includes $853 million for NYPD facilities in the first three years and only $160 million for the same need in the next seven years. The capital budget also includes “significant excess appropriations” and does not track capital project spending or completion, Gibson noted.

“This issue is not new to this administration,” she said, though she did praise officials for reducing excess appropriations last year by $5.9 billion and adding new budget lines to give more clarity to the process.

Hartzog conceded that capital planning has been a challenge for the city but that the administration has been working to distribute capital expenditures across the ten-year plan. “We’re gonna continue to work on that so that you will see over time that the...out-years of the ten-year plan smooth out and it wouldn’t be as high in the first five years,” she said.

Comptroller Scott Stringer and officials from the Independent Budget Office (which released a report on the budget on Wednesday) also testified before the Council on Wednesday. Stringer, who released his own analysis of the mayor’s preliminary budget last week, continued to emphasize the need for a greater budget cushion by putting away more funding in reserves. “Given the uncertainty on the horizon, I am increasingly concerned that we simply have not done enough to hedge against the risks,” he said in his testimony.

The Council will continue to evaluate the preliminary budget over the next several weeks, with specific agency heads being called to testify, before the Council issues its response. The mayor’s updated executive budget in April will then go through another round of Council hearings before the final spending plan for the next year is adopted.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - this article has been updated with PEG targets released by the mayor's office and to clarify that the PEG is meant to find $544 million in savings, not the total $750 million.

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City Council Pushes on De Blasio Savings Program During First Budget Hearing Wed, 06 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Without Chair, Council Committee Hears Bills Aimed to Help Discharged Military Veterans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8106-without-chair-council-committee-hears-bills-aimed-to-help-discharged-military-veterans https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8106-without-chair-council-committee-hears-bills-aimed-to-help-discharged-military-veterans Council Member Chaim Deutsch

Council Member Deutsch (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


A bill that would require the New York City Department of Veterans Services to help veterans discharged from the military solely for their LGBTQ status to upgrade or change the narrative of their discharge status and “extend all city benefits and services” to them was introduced to the City Council’s Committee on Veterans at a hearing on Monday.

Introduced alongside it was a bill that would require DVS to create a unit to assist veterans with discharge characterization upgrades and offer legal advice for those pursuing meritorious appeals. Almost all of the activists, city officials, and other members of the veterans community who attended the meeting supported the sentiment of the bills — but almost none of them supported them as written.

Other than retiring, most people leave military service through the discharge process. When a veteran is first discharged, they can be given one of five statuses: honorable, general, other than honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable. Discharge status is given at the discretion of the commanding officer. A less than honorable discharge, often referred to as a ‘bad paper discharge,’ can be given for any number of reasons — including being injured or ill — and results in a veteran being disqualified for certain federal Veterans Affairs benefits.

President of the American Veterans for Equal Rights’ New York Chapter Denny Meyer stated in his testimony that between World War II and the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” 100,000 LGBTQ American soldiers were less than honorably discharged for being gay. During the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, another 14,000 were involuntarily discharged for the same reason, and although most of these veterans received honorable discharge paperwork, the narrative of the paperwork listed their homosexuality as the reason for being discharged.

The bill related to LGBTQ discharge and reparations, Intro. 479, was proposed by Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Democrat from Queens and chair of the Council’s LGBT Caucus. The bill would seek to address discriminatory practices by requiring the city’s DVS to offer assistance to those less than honorably discharged solely for their sexual orientation or gender identity in upgrading their status or changing the narrative of that discharge.

This effort complements Intro. 1218, a bill sponsored by Council Member Chaim Deutsch, the chair of the Council’s veterans services committee, which would require DVS to create a unit with the sole purpose of giving legal advice to any veteran seeking discharge upgrades.
Deutsch did not chair the hearing on the bills, despite not only being the committee chair but also having one of his own bills on the docket. A conservative Democrat from Brooklyn, Deutsch did not provide an on-the-record explanation of his absence from the hearing despite repeated inquiries by Gotham Gazette. The City Council speaker’s office did not provide comment for this article when asked. Council Member Dromm’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about Deutsch’s absence. It is rare that a Council committee will hold a hearing without the chair.

The hearing was chaired by Council Member Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the committee. Council Members Dromm and Alan Maisel, another member of the committee, were also in attendance at the beginning of the hearing, though Dromm left for state Senator Jose Peralta’s wake shortly after discussing his bill, with Maisel leaving not long after as well. Council Member Mathieu Eugene, a committee member, came for a short time later in the meeting, leaving after asking a few questions concerning the logistics of discharge statuses. The only other member of the veterans committee, Council Member Paul Vallone, was not present at all.

Testimony on the two bills was first given by DVS Commissioner Loree Sutton, who in part responded to Dromm’s discussion of his bill.

During the testimony, Sutton brought up two major issues with the bills that would be echoed throughout the hearing by advocates.

First, although the language of Dromm’s Intro. 479 implies that some city benefits depend on discharge status, this is not the case, according to Sutton.

“Discharge status and LGBTQ status are not identifiers used to screen out applicants for city resources,” Sutton said.

The bill states: “A veteran with any discharge status less than honorable, for example, cannot access the full range of benefits offered by the VA and, often, are denied benefits by the state and local veterans affairs bodies as well.”

Dromm said that part of the intention of the bill was to codify LGBTQ veterans’ rights into law. Mentioning how the Trump administration has set back LGBTQ rights, he said that this bill would prevent a similar occurrence at the city level.

“One of the reasons why we put this legislation forward is because while we recognize Mayor de Blasio's commitment to LGBT rights and [Sutton’s] personal involvement in it as well, we don’t know what the next mayor’s going to bring,” Dromm said. “We’ve seen an administration in Washington D.C. that is already attempting to take away our rights and God forbid something like that should happen here in New York City, and all the work that either [Sutton has] done or the Council has done could be lost if in fact we don’t codify it.”

When it came to the bill proposed by Deutsch, Sutton and others mentioned that it would have DVS provide a service already provided by non-profits, some of which had representatives at the hearing. The service of providing legal advice and guidance in regards to discharge status upgrades is somewhat specialized and requires intricate knowledge of the legal system, according to Director of the Veteran Advocacy Project Coco Culhane, whose non-profit provides said legal advice.

“We do not believe that a unit within DVS would be an efficient use of city funds or city employees’ time,” Culhane said, going on to note that DVS was not originally intended to be a service-based agency, and so should not be advising veterans even if it had the legal expertise. The original mission of the still-new agency is to educate veterans about the services they are applicable for, largely federal, and help connect them with the resources they need.

Sutton agreed with this sentiment.

“DVS is not a subject-matter expert on evaluating the legitimacy of discharge upgrade claims,” Sutton said. “This bill would require that DVS provide what is actually legal advice and counselling, which is beyond its capacity and is inappropriate because city agencies do not provide direct legal counsel to members of the state.”

Systems DVS already has in place to assist veterans seeking discharge upgrades mainly rely on reaching out to attorneys for their advice, and helping link veterans to appropriate legal services. VetConnect, an online website that seeks to connect veterans with services they need, is also part of these efforts.

Ashton Stewart, coordinator with SAGE Vets Program, an LGBT veterans advocacy group created for the purpose of helping veterans who had been less-than-honorably discharged due to their sexual orientation, supported the legislation.

“SAGE wholeheartedly supports the discharge characterization upgrade assistance legislation.” Stewart said. “We believe that taking this step will bring profile to the important issue of LGBT service members wrongfully discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation.”

Vadim Panasyuk, Senior Veteran Transition Manager at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, added to the concerns about the bills, saying that if DVS were to provide legal advice concerning discharge upgrades it may complicate things for veterans and nonprofits.

“There are already processes in the nonprofit sector that will help veterans upgrade their discharge status free of charge,” Panasyuk said. “IAVA is concerned that passage of these bills could create confusion among the nonprofit and veterans community. DVS may be better served to complement these existing services rather than competing or duplicating them.”

The larger problem, according to both Culhane and Kent Eiler, Project Director of the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project, is the lack of qualified lawyers in the field of veteran law.

“The demand for able, experienced accredited representatives is vastly outstripped by the demand of veterans who need assistance,” Eiler said.

According to Sutton, so far in 2018, 105 veterans contacted DVS about discharge status. However, both Eiler and Culhane expressed that this number is not representative of the actual need. Eiler mentioned that those who come to the City Bar Justice Center are often put on an eight- to ten-month waiting list, while Culhane said that the Veteran Advocacy Project has had as many as 650 veterans waiting at a time just for the non-profit to investigate the merit of their case. Culhane said in just under two years, 500 veterans had contacted her association seeking assistance with a discharge upgrade.

With only two members of the Council remaining by the time the last panel of activists testified, Brannan brought the meeting to a close, with the fate of the bills unclear -- they can be voted on by the committee at a future meeting, amended and reheard by the committee, or laid over indefinitely.

Meyer, who was the last to give testimony, representing the American Veterans for Equal RIghts’ New York Chapter, expressed that having heard the testimony given at the meeting, his thoughts on the bills had changed. However, his feeling that LGBTQ veterans needed to be repaid for their service even in light of unjust treatment, remained.

“Someone is going to have to decide who is going to help them, who is going to rectify this, it’s as simple as that,” Meyer said.

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by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Without Chair, Council Committee Hears Bills Aimed to Help Discharged Military Veterans Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7805-assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7805-assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine catalina cruz parade Queens

Catalina Cruz (photo: @CatalinaCruzNY)


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley last month in New York’s 14th congressional district sent shockwaves throughout the country and signalled a monumental shift in Queens politics, where the Crowley-led county party has held significant sway in local elections for many years. The effects of Ocasio-Cortez’s win and Crowley’s loss, both nationally and locally, are still developing, but reverberations are certainly being felt in the already-competitive Democratic primary for New York Assembly District 39, where a county-backed incumbent is facing an independent challenger.

The district -- part of the 150-seat lower house of the state Legislature, all of which are on the ballot this fall, first in September 13 primaries -- covers the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights, and large parts of those fall within Crowley’s congressional district. It is currently represented by Assembly Member Ari Espinal, who was elected in a low-turnout special election barely three months ago, with fewer than 800 votes. Espinal was previously an aide to Francisco Moya, who held the Assembly seat before being elected to the New York City Council last year.

Espinal’s challenger in the primary is Catalina Cruz, an attorney with government experience who most recently served as chief of staff to former City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.

Espinal, whose cousin is Brooklyn City Council Member Rafael Epsinal, ran unopposed for the Assembly seat, having been endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party, which is chaired by Crowley and has played an influential role in not just Queens, but city and state elections for decades, as well as the selection of the powerful City Council speaker and a variety of other appointed positions. For a special election to the state Legislature, there are no party primaries, instead the party county committee selects its candidate for what is a singular public vote. In a heavily Democratic district like most in New York City, the party’s nominee is virtually  assured victory in a special election, and therefore gains at least some of the benefits of incumbency ahead of any subsequent intra-party challenges.

But the power of the Queens County Democrats’ endorsement is under question following Crowley’s landslide defeat to Ocasio-Cortez as he finishes his tenth term in the House. Queens Democratic insiders say Cruz is in important ways a stronger candidate than Espinal and that the Queens county machine -- a descriptor some take issue with -- is playing a minimal role in the race and has a far less threatening presence in the immediate aftermath of last month’s election. Some also point to the fact that the Queens county party has been defeated in a number of elections over the years by strong insurgent candidates, such as the victories of current City Council Members Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer, as well as Ferreras-Copeland’s first win. Moya, meanwhile, helped orchestrate Espinal’s ascension and is actively campaigning on her behalf in an area where he has won several recent elections.

For her part, Espinal is confident about the race. “I welcome any challenge,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m from Corona, Queens. I was raised in this neighborhood. I welcome any challenge and it’s exciting. I feel like it’s the Democratic process, too. Why wouldn’t you want a challenge? You would want your voters to get engaged. This is how they get engaged more when they have to pick, to choose and say, ‘Who’s going to represent me the way I want to be represented?’”

Having been in office just under three months, Espinal has been prime sponsor on one bill that was passed by both legislative chambers, to extend a labor law relating to unemployment insurance proceedings, and another, called Carlos’ Law, which enacts punishments for developers that put workers at risk of injury or death, which passed only the Assembly. Espinal has also allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to her community, she said. She signed on to the Dream Act, which aims to provide state financial aid to undocumented immigrants seeking higher education. She’s received support for her reelection bid from Moya, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano, and the Working Families Party.

Espinal is relying on her experience as a longtime community organizer and former Democratic district leader, promising voters that she will bring resources back to her community. She has pledged to fight for immigrant protections, affordable housing, school funding, small businesses, and workers rights, and other locally-important issues. And she pushed back against the notion that she is the establishment candidate in the race. “Quite so often you have politicians who are not from the area and just want to run for office because they just want the power. I’m not looking for the power,” she said. “What I’m looking for is to actually engage my community and tell them, ‘I’m here. I’m here for you because I’ve lived here and I know the issues...because I’m your neighbor.’”

Cruz, Espinal’s opponent, strikes a similar chord with her campaign pitch. “My entire life is a spectrum of the people of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst,” she said in a phone interview. But one thing that sets her far apart from Espinal is that Cruz herself is a “Dreamer,” a child of undocumented immigrants who came to New York at the age of nine and who only recently gained permanent resident status in 2009. “I went from being an undocumented child who picked cans in the street with her mom to survive, to being a Dreamer who was going to undergrad and paying for school for herself to a working poor lawyer...to being a middle-class New Yorker, which is basically the spectrum of the people who are here in our community,” she said.

After graduating law school and working as a housing attorney, Cruz joined the Attorney General’s office, then headed by Andrew Cuomo, before he was elected governor. Cruz served afterwards in the Department of Labor as counsel in the division of immigrant affairs. She worked with former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito -- who has endorsed her -- to write the legislation that kicked ICE agents off Rikers Island. She also returned to working for Cuomo, heading up his Exploited Workers Task Force, after which she joined Council Member Ferreras-Copeland’s staff. Her former boss has endorsed her, as have Council Members Dromm and Van Bramer, Helen Rosenthal, and Margaret Chin.

“We’re a people-driven campaign,” Cruz said of her approach to the race. “We start with people and we end with people. We start with the idea that all of our policies should be informed by people.” Though her policy platform largely resembles Espinal’s, Cruz says she sets herself apart by virtue of her independence, experience, her focus on the residents of the district who cannot vote, and her pledge to refuse corporate and luxury developer money (the latter a promise like one made by Ocasio-Cortez, who attacked Crowley for the large corporate donations he received).

“We are running a campaign that’s very much driven by people that live in the district and we’re independent from any ties to a political organization,” Cruz said.

Those ties or the lack thereof may not be determinative in the Assembly race that does again put the power of the Queens County Democrats in the spotlight, observers who spoke with Gotham Gazette said. One former Assembly candidate from Queens said the path to victory lies in a robust ground game and organization. “You knock on enough doors, you meet enough people, and you raise enough money, and the barriers to entry are very low,” the former candidate said. “How many people are gonna vote in an Assembly race? A few thousand? How much money do you need to raise for an assembly race? $100,000? How many doors are you gonna knock on?...You put your walking shoes on and you can do it. So I think party power is very limited and Ari and Catalina will win or lose on the strengths of their own organic, local operation.”

Democratic insiders pointed out that the Queens Democratic Party’s endorsement comes with political validation but not necessarily the resources to bolster a campaign, such as funding or boots on the ground. It’s why they disputed the characterization of the county party as a machine that can determine the course of campaigns. The party does, however, pressure potential contenders against considering a challenge to an incumbent and often brings with its endorsement a slew of loyal elected officials who coalesce around the county’s candidate and use their own resources and networks to boost them. The party also has connections at the Board of Elections and often attempts to knock challengers off the ballot and at times activates a network of district leaders and county committee members to help with ballot petition signature-gathering, door-knocking, and flyering.

“It seems like [Cruz] has real momentum and...everyone’s going to attest the strength of her campaign to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but I think the reality of it is the dynamics of that race were shaped well before the congressional race,” said a Queens Democratic operative who asked to remain anonymous to discuss things freely.

“I think people have an impression of the Queens county organization as a faulty machine,” the operative said, insisting that a loss by a county-backed candidate did not mean the so-called machine is faltering. “I think the reality is that’s not what the organization is...In my experience, they support somebody and their support will provide the significant assistance of validation from other elected officials. That’s very helpful...but it was never designed to overcome bad campaigns or great opposing candidates.”

If the incumbent candidate backed by the Queens Democrats loses to an independent challenger, the optics are far from ideal coming so close on the heels of Crowley’s loss. But the county has invested little in the race, said another Democratic insider from Queens who knows both Espinal and Cruz and who decried the term “machine” as a “loaded expression” for a county party that simply tries to elect its own members to office.

But the Queens county organization is undoubtedly powerful. The “machine” moniker stems from the fact that the party holds sway over more than just candidate endorsements -- its backing often also means a candidate will not receive a primary challenger. The county organization selects judicial nominees, and allies of Crowley have made hefty profits from being appointed as guardians in Surrogate’s Court. The party’s executive secretary is Michael Reich, whose partner Gerard Sweeney in the law firm Sweeney, Reich and Bolz, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Surrogate’s Court business. The county also selects one of the ten commissioners on the New York City Board of Elections, who decide which candidates qualify to appear on the ballot.

The City Council speaker’s race has more often than not also been decided by the influence of the Queens and Bronx county parties; Council central staffers are frequently picked from the county’s ranks; and Council committee chairs are influenced by county allegiances. And though Crowley may no longer represent the House next year, City & State reported that he’s expected to be reelected county chair by district leaders for another two-year term in September. The county organization did not return a request for comment for this article about its support for Espinal.

“I don’t think it would be a fair characterization to say this is a test of the county organization because I’m not sure they have all hands on deck for this one,” the insider said. The insider insisted that neither candidate needs the county party’s help to win the race, which would be won on the merits of their candidacies, and that Crowley’s fall is more likely to have an effect on the state Senate District 13 race, where Jessica Ramos is challenging Senator Jose Peralta, formerly of the rogue Independent Democratic Conference, which empowered Republicans. “I don’t think the Catalina-Ari race is affected by the Crowley result as much,” the insider said. “I just don’t get the sense that that changed everything...They weren’t dependent on Crowley for the win. Peralta was kinda depending on the county guys propping him up, keeping him strong and I feel like that has turned and now Ramos, if I had to bet, will win that race.”

Cruz herself drew a parallel with Ocasio-Cortez’s win, noting that voters turned out in higher numbers for the progressive challenger than Crowley in his own backyard, which encompasses large parts of the Assembly district, to vote out the incumbent. “[Ocasio-Cortez] believed in the everyday person and the everyday person believed in her so much that they went out and overwhelmingly voted for her,” she said. “And that’s where we find ourselves, in the exact same situation.”

But even she denied that she was poking the bear through her candidacy. “I wouldn’t call it testing their power because I never said I’m running against the machine,” Cruz said. “I’ve always said I’m running for the people. We have an organization that was just shown what people powered campaigns can do and we’re about to show them a second time.”

If anything, the race may show that the Queens party’s once-coveted support has turned sour, seen by some as a signal of establishment politics that has been too out of touch with regular voters. “I think it definitely suffered,” said the Democratic insider of the county party’s endorsement. “It’s very raw and very recent, the whole Joe thing...I don’t know if this is a permanent problem or just a temporary one. But the timing right now is bad for those people.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000