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Still guessing at size of state cuts, city grows closer to layoffs

With the clock ticking down toward probable layoffs, school officials say the fiscal picture hasn’t grown clearer in the last month.

Department of Education officials are still aiming to give principals their preliminary school budgets on June 1, Chancellor Joel Klein told City Council today. “That said, things in Albany are changing each day and our situation remains fluid,” said DOE spokeswoman Ann Forte.

As they decide exactly when to release school budgets, officials are seeking to strike a delicate balance. Principals need enough time to plan how to work large cuts into their budgets. But officials are also hesitant to pull the trigger on announcing exact cuts and layoffs too early, for fear of having to retrace their steps if a state budget follows soon thereafter.

City officials are currently anticipating that, unless Albany passes a less austere budget than the governor’s current proposal, the city schools will lose as many as 6,400 teacher positions — 4,400 of them through layoffs — and schools will face cuts that are much larger than the 4.9 percent reductions they saw this year.

Layoff decisions could begin “within days” of when schools receive their preliminary budgets, the DOE’s Chief Schools Officer Eric Nadelstern said today. Earlier this month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that if the state passed a more generous budget after teachers are already laid off, the funds might not be used to hire teachers back.

Forte said that DOE budget staff are planning to work through the holiday weekend to ensure that the budgets principals receive next week are based on the most up-to-date information.

In many ways, the city has no more clarity about school budgets now than it did at the beginning of this month, when Bloomberg said there was “no drop-dead date” for deciding exactly how many teacher positions would need to be eliminated.

In addition to action from Albany, city officials are hopeful that Congress will pass a $23 billion teacher jobs bill that is currently stalled in Congress. If passed, that bill could give New York City $400 million to use to reduce teacher layoffs,  Klein told City Council today.

Nadelstern said that it was also possible that a last-minute agreement with the teachers union could help avert some layoffs. “The best case scenario would be that the teachers agree to forgo immediate raises as well as increases in step increments, and that would allow us to balance the budget regardless of what the state does, and forgo laying people off,” Nadelstern said.