Thursday, June 2, 2011

Update! Rally and hearings about the mayor's devastating cuts to our kids

There was a rousing rally at City Hall yesterday morning, with parents and elected officials standing up for our kids and against the mayor’s ruthless and devastating cuts.  

The actress Kristin Johnston made a great speech, saying that she has had a long love affair with NYC ever since she moved here more than ten years ago, but that these budget cuts threatened to kill that love, and would seriously damage Bloomberg's legacy.  “Is this really the message you want to give to the kids? Your education doesn’t matter?"   She said that the citizens of NYC would fight back, and win: “I only have two words for you: Cathie Black!”  (Photo at right from DNA info of Johnston, in back of the banner made by the activist parents of District 6.)

The city council budget hearings that followed were eye-opening as usual.  Chair of the Education committee Robert Jackson led off with a strong opening statement, saying that while the mayor wants to cut 6,000 teachers for a savings of $350 million, DOE was projecting increased spending on contract schools (private schools) by $157 million, and special ed preK by $165 million, with no explanation as to why. Overall, the DOE plans to increase its contract budget by over $700 million, rising to $4.5 billion.
Walcott was steadfast that all these spending increases on private contracts and IT consultants were necessary; though he did announce that the DOE had (finally!) cancelled its contract with Future Technology Associates, the huge, wasteful and probably corrupt IT contract that the DOE has spent over $100 million on, with  63 consultants getting more than $250K per year, and much of the actual work done by cheap labor in India and Turkey while DOE  was being charged over $100 per hour for their work.  
This company, that Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez has been reporting on for almost two years, was supervised by Judith Krohe,  DOE’s executive director of financial operations,  who, it turns out, was personally involved with one of the principals. She has now resigned in disgrace, and the company is under investigation by the Special Investigators office, based on Juan’s revelations (though when RJ  held up a copy of one of Juan’s Daily News columns , Walcott said you can’t believe everything you read in the papers.  Unfortunately for the taxpayer,  you can.)  Here is Juan’s update on the FTA issue.
Repeatedly, the DOE has said that FTA’s work was so expert that it could not be brought in- house; now they admit that by hiring 20-25 employees, they will save taxpayers $2.7 million in one year alone. Why can’t this be done with more contracts, RJ asked.  Why can’t they renegotiate all their contracts and ask for a 5-10% cut?  Impossible, said Walcott.
Jackson said that contractors are “ripping us off by millions of dollars, ripping us blind” because they figure the “mayor is a millionaire so no one cares.”  Walcott: we report every infraction to the SCI and we have strict internal protocols. Veronica Comforme, the DOE”s chief financial officer said that they had put these new systems in during last year and a half.  (What about the eight years before that?  How many hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars have been ripped off? )
Chief Academic Officer Shael Suransky said that they would soon start billing Medicaid $100 million a year, which they stopped in 2005 because the feds said that the DOE didn’t document properly the services given (they have already lost $600 M through their incompetence in this area alone. Let’s hope SESIS, the DOE sped reporting program is working; there have been complaints that it is even more dysfunctional than ARIS.)
Finance Chair Dominic Recchia asked how many children were in the contract schools. Victoria Conforme, head of finance, said she didn’t know, Recchia complained that  there was a terrible lack of transparency as to the education budget, and the DOE was not responsive to follow-up information requests. 
CM Fidler said there was a “holy trinity” of school success: small class size, teacher quality and parent involvement, and that the mayor should go to Albany and make a deal with the Governor to extend the millionaire’s tax, with its revenue dedicated to education aid.  He asked Walcott if he would ask the mayor to do that, and Walcott said no, this wasn’t his job.  Besides which,  an “effective teacher” can do his job well, no matter what the class size.  Fidler said he was very “disappointed” and that he wished he would show “leadership” and that “someone has to advocate for the kids.”
The most persistent questioners on class size were Council members Daniel Dromm, a former teacher, and Brad Lander.  Both pointed out that the DOE estimate of only a two student per class increase was unlikely to occur in many schools.  Dromm pointed out that when a school  eliminates a classroom teacher, this immediately raises the size of classes on the grade by five or six, depending on how many classes per grade there are, in a non-linear fashion. Lander pointed out that already classes had increased  in size to excessive levels, and asked what the actual contractual class size caps were by grade. 
Again, none of the top-level DOE officials appeared to know the answer to this very basic question, neither Walcott, Suransky, or Conforme, though they had been asked this same question by Lander in the previous month’s hearings.   (The actual caps are to the left, compared to the CFE or Contract for Excellence goals.  In every grade but Kindergarten, they are 30 or more.)  Lander asked what would be the effect on classes that were already near thirty;  Walcott shrugged his shoulders and said they hadn’t done that analysis. Lander said that their apparent unconcern about this issue and their failure to do any analysis was unfair to parents. 
The reality is that the union contractual class size caps in grades 1-5 are 32, and many classes could indeed rise to that level if these cuts go through; these are huge class sizes not seen in the early grades in  many years.  The confusion on this point is a result of how  previously, the DOE had honored a side agreement with the UFT that limited class sizes in grades 1-3 to 28 students per class, which is still far too large but far better than 32. Class sizes could rise even above these limits, since there is an obscure rule called "breakage" meaning if the surplus number of students does not amount to more than half the limit of a new class, the violation can remain unaddressed.
Tweed no longer honors the side agreement that limited class size to 28 in 1-3 grades, and the UFT does not grieve these violations.  This is yet another of the myriad ways that the Bloomberg administration has systematically undermined class size and the quality of education received by NYC children in recent years
Walcott's testimony revealed multiple levels of shifting rationales. Why not let the principals choose what to cut, according to the DOE theory of principal autonomy, asked RJ, instead of unilaterally deciding that six thousand teaching positions must be eliminated?  Walcott said he is looking for input from principals, but that the decision to lay off teachers has to be made centrally.
Several council members drew attention to the big increase in charters and their spending and staffing that comes directly out of the DOE budget.  There will be 18 new charter schools next year, and charter growth  will cost the DOE an additional $120 million; amounting to more $666 million, not counting the space and services which DOE gives them for free.  Why the big increase in charters, asked CM Steven Levin, doesn’t that divert even more resources from our district public schools?  Walcott said that the growth in charters was in response to parental demand.  But then Levin pointed out that there is also strong parental demand not to lay off any teachers.
Jackson, Fidler, and Recchia all repeatedly criticized the DOE for putting out non-transparent budgets, and not responding adequately to follow up questions from staff.  One way in which the DOE purposely obscures its spending is by repeatedly claiming that they’ve made cuts in the bureaucracy when with more careful analysis, it turns out they’ve just pushed costs to the school level.  For example, a couple of years ago, DOE claimed cost savings in the central administration in test scoring, but then it turned out these “savings” were achieved by making schools send their teachers to score state exams during school time, requiring principals to hire substitutes instead;  earlier Tweed had paid teachers overtime to do this same job.
Recchia alluded to the fact that the educrats at Tweed are playing new tricks with the budget, by obscuring the continued expansion of the mid-level bureaucracy at the expense of the classroom by  submerging almost 2,000 positions  of the ever-expanding Children First networks into the budget line of school-level spending called “ General education and Special education Instruction and School Leadership.” 
Through all the shifting reorganizations, from the districts, to the regions, to the school support organizations and now to the CFNs and clusters, the  midlevel bureaucracy had a budget line that was kept separate from schools,  so that their headcount and spending could be separately tracked.  That’s how we knew that the savings DOE claimed they’d achieved by eliminating the districts was illusory.  No longer; now they claim a reduction of the bureaucracy of $17 million; while hiding its growing headcount at the school level.  In this way, they are doubling cheating our kids – as the actual cuts to the classroom are even larger than apparent.
Speaker Quinn and Recchia put out a statement calling for $75 million in alternative cuts; including $4 million from Teach For America and the New Teacher Project recruitment and training, a smaller DOE press office,  and $13.2 million from the DOE’s IT contracts (projected to be $50.6 million, up 76% from this year alone.)   More on their proposals here, and more accounts of the hearings from  GothamSchoolsPost, Daily NewsTimes, NY1  and DNA info, which has additional photos of the rally and the hearings. See also D6 parent Tory Frye’s FB page with some short videos.
This was my statement at the press conference, which sums up my views:
One of the ways in which a city reveals its future and its soul is by the way it treats its children.  By any measure, the mayor fails in this category.  He has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and continues to waste millions more on no-bid contracts, consultants, computers, and testing; and instead wants to slash the budget by eroding the most important thing of all: the personal relationship between a student and his or her teacher. 
Already, class sizes have steadily increased in recent years and school level spending has been cut by 12%. Eliminating six thousand teaching positions at a time of enrollment growth would be absolutely devastating and would return us to the dark ages as far as class size goes.  The mayor’s cuts reveal that rather than putting children first, he is putting them last. 
Before adopting these devastating cuts, the mayor and the council should consider whether they would subject their own children to class sizes of thirty or more.  If the answer is no, they should do everything they can to restore all 6,000 teaching positions.


Anonymous said...

There is no way the amount of layoffs first projected will ever happen. class size will remain the same in most schools.The mayor will say he is responsible for saving our schools.Things will return to normal.Testing will increase,test prep will continue,charter schools will suffocate our public schools and toss out their failures to our public schools.Some teachers in each school walk around without spending each period working with children. We have many more problems than layoffs in our school system.

Leonie Haimson said...

Anonymous, I wish you were right. Class size is going up no matter what next year; the only question is how sharp and whether the increase will be merely damaging or devastating.

Anonymous said...

It is completely ludicrous that class sizes are huge in many school across New York City. There are classroom in some city schools that are NOT EVEN being utilized by anyone. This is a complete injustice to students, teachers and principals everywhere who do not have/can not afford to have the appropriate resources in their schools. How can the Department of Education completely ignore the fact that there are vacant and empty rooms not being used in their city schools due to inequitable budgets and large class sizes? If the schools were given equitable funding, we would definitely not have so many large classes across the city.

Anonymous said...

Sweet girl please do not say there are empty rooms in our schools. Our mayor will just squeeze some charter schools into the buildings.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,
Yes, we have a lot of problems in the NYC school system, but when class sizes go up, these problems will be exacerbated, especially in the area of discipline. For every student above the class limit, the teacher should receive extra pay. The UFT should have negotiated this. Instead, they were too busy giving the store up in 2005. The union shares plenty of blame for this fiasco. The UFT should have also demanded the restoration of the 600 school concept for the unruly. That would lower class size and place disruptive children in appropriate class settings. Would our politicians want their children sitting in classrooms with disruptive pupils?

Anonymous said...

With the threatened budgetary cuts, Mayor Bloomberg goes off to Brazil to deliver a discourse on climate control. If anything, we need a change in the political climate in this city.

Anonymous said...

The schools that have empty rooms are because the classes are huge which as we know is not conducive to students. There are empty rooms in these schools because principals are not fighting for equitable funding. Instead of excessing teachers, ask for better funding to keep class sizes low with more teachers, not less.