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Thursday, May 28, 2015

DOE's lack of commitment to reducing class size and transparency on full display today at City Hall

Video of yesterday's Council budget hearing as well as briefing papers are posted here.

The lack of commitment to reducing class size that plagued the DOE through the Bloomberg years and that continues under the new administration was in full display during the City Council budget hearings today at City Hall.  So was a lack of transparency, which if anything has worsened under our new Mayor.

First class size: In response to the questions from the Chair of the Finance Committee Julissa Ferreras about class size in Renewal schools, Chancellor Farina responded that while class size is about 22-23 in the early grades, instead of lowering class size she will install reading specialists.  Middle school class sizes are around 29, but she is introducing guidance counselors in these schools instead, which she considers more important, and in high school, they look at credit accumulation; (like at Dewey HS?) 

Though we found that 60% of Renewal schools had at least some classes that were 30 or more, the Chancellor said that “We do not have large class sizes in Renewal schools generally, because unfortunately (?) enrollment in these schools has not been as high as it should be.” 

Later she went on to say that some Renewal schools are going to purposely INCREASE class size, so that they could also do small group instruction (which was eliminated from schools with the new UFT contract.)  She said the same change would happen in many of the PROSE schools, now able to violate the class size limits in the union contract, by giving lecture classes or team teaching, supposedly so that they can also work with struggling students in smaller groups at other times.  One school apparently combines physics and chemistry – in one room at one time.   Others combine four classes into one.  How any of this will help kids learn I have no idea, but this appears to be Farina’s favorite innovation.  If it is innovation, it appears to be going in the wrong direction.  

Transparency: CM Ferreras also asked the Chancellor why the capital plan was released over two months late this year.  (It is usually released at the beginning of February but this year was not released until May.)  The Chancellor said they went over it with “a fine tooth comb” and it was “revised and revised.”  

In fact, almost nothing in the plan changed except for adding thousands of new preK seats, as Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose admitted in her testimony later in the day.  The DOE did not change the number of K12 seats, nor did they site any of the 4,900 seats (supposedly for class size reduction)  that were added in January 2014.

Ferreras said the lateness of the plan was unacceptable, that legally they were required to submit it by March 1, and the DOE had hampered the Council’s opportunity to look through the plan carefully.

Chair of the Education Committee Danny Dromm pointed out that the total of $13.5 billion spent  has not changed the November plan, which was a shame,  since the Mayor has announced his intention to add 200K new units of housing, and the plan was already by DOE admission, 16,000 seats short.  What are the plans going forward to address the need, considering this shortage? 

Farina was less than direct in her response.  Where there are possible areas for sale, or lease, they will take advantage of it, she said; where they might be less enrollment, we could shift around spending.  Ray Orlando, DOE budget director added, we have the Education Construction Fund for development potential.  We know must keep up with neighborhood growth.  Farina said, some developers are coming to us with plans where schools will be put into their developments. (like where?)

Dromm asked why there was a decrease in the number of new seats since the city’s last ten year capital plan.  Orlando: you should ask Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose.  The ten year capital plan is updated every April. There are more opportunities to improve.  

Dromm: I’m concerned about $2B decrease in the new ten year plan, since the preliminary ten year plan.  [There's a $5 billion cut since the last ten year plan in 2008-2017] Some people say we need 25,000 to 50,000 more seats than 16,000 currently acknowledged. (Yes, that’s what our analysis in Space Crunch showed clearly, based on DOE data.)

When Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose appeared in the afternoon to testify about the capital plan, she was no more forthright in her responses.  She had no answer for why the plan was months late, only that, fortunately, after being aligned with the city's ten year capital plan, it had changed very little. (!!) 

She had no answer for why the DOE still has not sited any of the 4,900 seats for class size reduction,  first proposed a year and a half ago in January 2014, only they were still going over the "criteria" for where to put them -- even as they located 6800 new seats for preK in the last few months.

She had no answer for when the DOE would close the gap despite their admitted need for 16,000 more seats.  (The real need is much larger.)

She continually described the crisis of school overcrowding that exists in nearly all parts of the city, with nearly half of all students attending schools at 100% utilization or more, as "pocket overcrowding". 

She had no answer for why the recommendations of the Blue Book working group appointed last year to improve the DOE’s utilization formula for school overcrowding had not yet been released. (Reportedly, their recommendations were made last December.)   

Here is a sample of her exchange with Dromm on this issue: 

Dromm: The recommendations of Blue Book task force were ready months ago. When will they be released?  
Rose: We’re looking forward to releasing them soon as soon as we can. 
Dromm: What is the cause for delay?
Rose: We are continuing to work this through our agency, what this mean for us. 
Ferreras: I’m really sorry, but you’re not giving us a date.  We need to understand and get an answer.  Either tell us when they will be released or explain the delay.
Rose: We are continuing to work on this and look forward to sharing them with you. 

But the lack of transparency around this issue didn’t compare with the complete misinformation offered by Rose and SCA President Lorraine Grillo about the state’s contribution to the funding of the plan.  

Dromm pointed out that schools are a far smaller percentage of the new ten year city capital plan compared to the previous 2008-2017 ten year plan – only 28% compared to 34%, under Bloomberg. (For more in this, see my testimony.)  This is regrettable given that the Mayor has said education is a priority, Dromm added.  He then asked where the funding for the plan comes from. 

Grillo responded that previously, the state had paid for 50% of the funds for school construction but that now, the city has taken over entire funding since state building aid is "expiring."

Rose agreed, claiming that the city's portion of  ten year capital plan for schools has more than "now
more than doubled." Because of this, the city will be covering the entire cost, spending $20.3 billion for school construction and repair compared to $9.8 billion before.

But none of that is true.  As the Independent Budget Office reported today, the state formula for building aid for schools has not changed one iota.  The state is still reimbursing the city for 50% of the cost.  The only change is that the city is now floating the bonds rather than the state, with minimal if any change in cost or risk to the city.

Why is the administration hiding this fact?  The Office of Management and Budget has also inexplicably taken out all information concerning the state contribution to school construction and repair out of their ten year capital plan report, as opposed to every ten year plan produced during the Bloomberg years.  See the new 10 year capital plan put out by OMB: 
Education spending in Ten Year Capital strategy (FY 2016-2025)

 Compare that to the last ten year plan for 2008-2017 – put out during the Bloomberg administration:
Education spending in Ten Year Capital strategy (FY 2008-2017)

Why is the DOE now hiding the billions they receive from the state? Is it their excuse for the inexcusable spending cuts to education they are planning to make? 

Whatever the explanation, the misinformation provided today at City Hall was truly regrettable, and yet more evidence that the officials who are supposed to be working for parents, concerned citizens, and taxpayers, are either astonishingly ignorant or refusing to tell us the truth.

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