Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mayor Stands Firm on Teacher Layoffs

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially proposed eliminating 6,166 teaching positions from the nation's largest school system, a move that sparked a deluge of criticism on Friday from elected officials and education advocates who vowed to wage a fierce battle to block the cuts.

Associated Press

Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiling his budget at City Hall on Friday.

The mayor's $65.7 billion budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 calls for laying off about 4,100 of the city's 75,000 teachers and slashing an additional 2,000 teaching positions via attrition. If the City Council approves the cuts, it would mark the largest number of pink slips for city teachers in decades.

The mayor also intends to reduce the work force in other city agencies by roughly 4,000. The mayor's budget blueprint also recommends shuttering 20 fire companies, shouldering libraries with a double-digit cut and reducing funds for senior-citizen case managers by 30%.

Even the mayor's plan to restore money to pay for 16,000 day-care slots faced criticism, with advocates saying the restorations wouldn't cover all that's being cut. But it was the mayor's plan to eliminate thousands of teachers that drew the most fire.

"This is going to be an epic battle," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a potential 2013 mayoral candidate.

Mr. Bloomberg said his administration has funneled roughly $2 billion in additional city taxpayer money to the schools to cover funding reductions from the state and federal governments. In 2002, the city and state split equally the nonfederal cost of educating city children, the mayor said; in the upcoming fiscal year, the city's share has grown to 61%.

"The reason education is taking such a big hit is plain and simple—a conscious decision by the federal government and state government to cut education," Mr. Bloomberg said.

The mayor also warned that the city is tapping its reserves in a way that could lead to problems balancing deficits in future years. The city, which faces a $4.8 billion deficit in fiscal year 2013, has taken this year $3.9 billion out of a total of $5.9 billion in reserves to balance the budget, Mr. Bloomberg said.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the teacher layoffs could have been even steeper.

"We'll have to do more with less, and we'll see class sizes going up," he said.

On average, class size could increase by two to three students citywide. But, Mr. Walcott said, "the issue for me is making sure we have an effective teacher in front of the classroom." The administration is pursuing legislative changes in Albany that would allow the city to lay off teachers based on merit, instead of seniority as the law currently requires.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said the budget plan involves the "same smoke, same mirrors, same attempt to blame others for his decision to lay off thousands of teachers."

In a joint statement, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Council Member Domenic Recchia, chairman of the Finance Committee, vowed they "will do everything in our power to prevent teacher layoffs."

The cost of saving all 6,166 teaching positions is $435 million, officials said. If the council chooses to save only those teachers slated to be laid off, the cost would be $300 million, the officials said.

In previous years, the council has swatted down the mayor's plans to close fire companies. But the mayor on Friday said he doesn't believe it would be "practical" to restore all of the fire companies he plans to shutter.

"Maybe we can protect some," he suggested.

But the fire commissioner, Sal Cassano, said he's hopeful these companies will be saved during the negotiations with the council. The mayor and the council are expected to finalize a budget by the end of next month.

On the brighter side, following earlier threats that the administration would close more than 100 senior centers, Aging Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli said the mayor has providing funding to open 10 new centers that would serve 250 to 300 seniors each.

While advocates for the elderly remain concerned about the loss in case-management funding and its impact, Ms. Barrios-Paoli said she believes it's possible to "triage" and make those funds stretch further.

Deep inside the budget documents, the administration revealed Friday it's exploring the possibility of charging a fee to universities, religious institutions and not-for-profits for garbage collection. If the mayor moves forward with it, the new fee wouldn't be imposed before July 1, 2012, officials said.

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