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City skipped mandatory public hearings on spending plan

The last months’ governance craziness overshadowed what had become a summer ritual: The process by which the city proposes how it wants to spend state Contracts for Excellence dollars, and the public gets to respond with its thoughts at formal hearings.

The hearings happen because Contracts for Excellence dollars are only doled out to districts that prove they will spend the money in certain kinds of programs pre-approved by state school officials.

But this summer, the New York City Department of Education skipped over the mandated date for hearings, which are supposed to occur in all five boroughs, without holding them. A public comment period will be postponed until the fall, but New York state plans to send the city the funds anyway, before that happens.

“Funds that are continuing last year’s Contract can be used,” a state education spokesman, Jonathan Burman wrote in an email. The “commissioner’s approval is required before funds allocated to new purposes can be used.” The state’s grim financial picture has meant that the city won’t receive any more Contracts dollars than it did last year.

An official at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, whose lawsuit alleging that the city schools are historically under-funded by the state led to the creation of the Contracts for Excellence fund, said that the state’s logic makes little sense given the tough fiscal climate.

“Because there’s no new money this year, the critical importance of this year’s hearings is to ensure that the money continues to be invested with the neediest schools and students,” Geri Palast, the executive director of the campaign, said. “And to ensure that the money continues to be spent in the 6 strategic areas so we can continue to demonstrate that the money does makes a difference in students’ performance.”

Burman said the state had yet to settle on a schedule for the city’s public hearings. Asked why the hearings had been delayed, he responded, “Why don’t you ask NYC?”

According to a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Education, Ann Forte, the hearings were detained by “uncertainty” about what this year’s education budget would look like.

“Last spring, there was much uncertainty about what school budgets would look like for the 2009-2010 school year,” Forte wrote in an email. “At that time, federal stimulus dollars were still being allocated to schools. We are now working with the State to finalize a new Contracts for Excellence timeline.”

Burman said that the state had not yet approved Syracuse and Rochester’s contracts. City officials in these cities did not return calls for comment.

Amber Dixon, the director for evaluation, accountability, and project initiatives for the Buffalo school district, said Buffalo had held the hearings on schedule. “Buffalo was never asked to postpone anything about the Contract for Excellence. We submitted it on time, we held our hearings on time, and we approved it,” she said, adding, “Our budget is nothing compared to the New York City budget.”

“This is just another of the DOE’s evident lack of interest in complying with state law,” Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City nonprofit, said. “They just don’t care and it’s time that the state calls them on it,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the state had allowed the city to skip the hearings process. The hearings have only been delayed. Burman also clarified that while the state has not yet approved Syracuse and Rochester’s contracts, that process has not been delayed.

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