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Making sense of budget cuts: How much will go and when?

An annoying thing about budget cuts is that, in addition to being hands-down, no-question bad news, they are also usually completely obscure to the average human brain. How much will be cut? From whom? Starting when? There are so many unknowns that even paid budget experts have trouble explaining it.

Here are six things we do know, after the jump:

1. Schools will face cuts, possibly during the middle of this school year. Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson have each proposed cuts that would take money out of education budget immediately. The mayor’s plan would take $181 million from city funds to schools, forcing 475 job cuts from the central Department of Education and cuts of about 1.3% directly from schools’ budgets. The governor’s plan would take $255 million from the city Department of Education, which would have to decide how to allocate those cuts. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity says these cuts constitute “the largest proposed cuts to schools in the history of the state.”

Each plan will likely face some opposition, especially Paterson’s, which Senate Republicans are already threatening to derail. That is important because, New York being a republic, the plans can’t be passed without approval of their respective legislative bodies.

2. Next year’s school budgets will also likely be cut. In addition to the mid-year cuts, both Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg are proposing reducing education budgets for the next year fiscal year. The figure Bloomberg is proposing: $385 million.

3. The cuts look historically gigantic partially because they follow planned increases that were also historically gigantic. The settlement of the long-running Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit forced New York State to give public schools an extra $7 billion over a four-year period that began in 2007. That started to happen last year, with historic funding increases to New York City schools and other districts. So even though Paterson’s plan calls for mid-year cuts to schools, school budgets will still be larger than they were last year. In New York City, the overall school budget would be $8.1 billion, down from an expected $8.3 billion.

4. Any new reductions would come on top of cuts that happened last year and this year. The city last February cut $180 million from the Department of Education, a bulk of which was passed down to schools. Then, planning for this school year, Mayor Bloomberg suggested cutting $428 million from what had been scheduled to go to the Department of Education. The blow was softened by cuts from the department’s central office and an influx of $129 million from the City Council speaker, Christine Quinn, but schools still got less money from the city this year than they had been scheduled to receive — and Quinn’s plan was not as pretty in practice as on paper, recovering less spending power for schools with many students in poverty than it claimed.

A similar plan proposed by Governor Spitzer, to cut state spending on schools for this year, did not happen, after advocates including the teachers union campaigned against it. (Remember “Keep the Promise”?)

5. Cuts that happen in the middle of the school year are especially dreaded because they force principals to cut only what hasn’t already been paid. After-school programs and class trips go, while sunk costs like curriculum that’s already been purchased and staff who’ve already been put on the payroll stay. And this year could be even worse than last year. Last year, many city schools weathered the cuts by relying on funds they had set aside. This year, rainy day funds are in shorter supply.

6. Cuts that look ugly now could get downright vile next year, thanks to to an expiration date that has gone largely under the radar. (Though we reported it here!) That’s the scheduled end to a “hold harmless” clause that delayed the full implementation of a new city funding formula called Fair Student Funding. The formula gives schools extra money for students with extra needs, like those in poverty or still learning English. It was also supposed to take funds away from schools with fewer of those students (think Stuyvesant, Midwood, and Brooklyn Tech), but it didn’t, thanks to the “hold harmless” agreement, which kept their budgets at a clean 0% change. The agreement expires next year, however, and schools are already looking ahead to cuts they could see as a result. The figures are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases.