Chancellor Dennis Walcott and education officials testify at a hearing on the 2013-2014. budget
Chancellor Dennis Walcott and education officials testify at a hearing on the 2013-2014. budget

Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s testy budget hearing with the City Council on Tuesday got confrontational before it even started.

The hearing was delayed by nearly an hour as Walcott huddled with city lawyers to discuss whether he should agree to get sworn in under oath before answering questions about the city’s $24.9 billion education spending plan for the 2013-2014 school year. The unprecedented request was made because council members believed he had not answered questions truthfully earlier this year.

Under advisement from lawyers, Walcott refused. After the hearing, Walcott said he didn’t want to complicate city lawsuits about issues that were likely to come up at the hearing. He also said that the department wasn’t notified until Tuesday morning when he arrived at City Hall.

“I would never hide from anything,” Walcott said. “I’m always accessible. I always respond to everything. But I have a responsibility with pending litigation to make sure I know what the legal implications are.”

Typically, people who testify at council hearings aren’t asked to swear to tell the truth but committee chairs can make the request at their discretion.

Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson said it was the first time he made the request. He said he wanted to pressure Walcott to answer questions about the city’s plans to bid out new busing contracts, an issue that unionized bus drivers and matrons went on strike over in January.

Jackson said he and other council members were irked about Walcott’s testimony at a hearing on the strike in February. At that hearing, Walcott told the council that the city believed, based on its interpretation of a court ruling, that it is illegal to include job protections in the new contracts, which he estimated could save the city  $100 million over five years.

But the city also filed court papers for a different case over current bus contracts that seemed to contradict that argument, according to Juan Gonzales in the Daily News. Walcott said Tuesday the ruling only applied to new contracts, a statement that Jackson wanted to be under oath because he didn’t believe it was true.

“If someone gives false information under oath, that’s committing perjury,” Jackson said in an interview after the hearing.

Bus contracts, which costs the city about $1 billion annually, dominated the hearing on Tuesday and often led to tense exchanges.

At one point, Councilwoman Letitia James suggested he was being too cavalier about drivers and matrons who could lose their jobs as a result of the newly awarded contracts.

“Most of those matrons, Mr. Chancellor, in all due respect, are people who look like you,” James said.

“And your point being?” Walcott replied.

“My point is that most of those matrons are people of color and you think that’s something that’s comical,” said James.

“Oh give me a break,” Walcott said. “Don’t even try it. ”

Video of the exchange is posted at Capital New York.

Walcott was often defensive during the hearing and pushed back when council members accused him of lying, as Jackson and Councilman Charles Barron did. More than once, he asked if they were more concerned with defending unions in some of the city’s labor disputes than learning more about the education budget.

“We’re talking about a $25 billion agency that will be providing services to 1.1 million students and basically the questions were solely about [bus driver job protections],” Walcott said.

Walcott said his adversarial approach at the hearings were not new.

“I’m not going to allow people to shill for other people and not have a response to that,” Walcott said after the hearing. “I stand up for what I believe in and what we’re doing and I will never back down from that. That’s what you saw today, that’s what you saw last year and that’s what you saw the first year.”