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Left with old debts, a Brooklyn school blames decline on cuts

When a Brooklyn elementary school principal sunk her school nearly $180,000 in debt and was eventually removed from her post, teachers expected a fresh start.

Instead, they experienced the city’s typical solution for bankrupt schools: a payment plan.

P.S. 114 in Canarsie, Brooklyn was given four years to repay the city. Now that the city plans to begin closing the school next year, the teachers union, parents, and teachers are blaming the school’s decline on the debt left by a principal they asked the city to fire. City officials are calling this claim is unfair, since other schools manage to pay the city back while keeping their test scores up.

City schools can easily overspend if they don’t factor budget cuts and enrollment decreases into their spending plans. When this happens, the city doesn’t eat the loss and give the school a clean slate the next year. Instead, schools are put on payment plans in which they’re given several years to pay the city back. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said some schools emerge from this process unscathed, while others struggle with painful cuts.

P.S. 114 falls in the second category. In the last year, its students’ test scores have dropped. About 35 percent of its students tested proficient on the reading test, compared to 53 percent citywide. And 34 percent passed the math test, whereas citywide, that number was 61 percent. The low scores earned the school a D on its annual progress report and a spot on the city’s closure list.

According to DOE officials, former principal Maria Pena-Herrera — who was removed in 2009 — racked up debts by refusing to make any spending cuts. When the city cut the school’s budget by $78,000 in 2008, Pena-Herrera kept spending money and hiring extra assistant principals. When the school’s enrollment dropped by 46 students and the budget shrank further, she still didn’t make cuts.

The city gave P.S. 114 four years to return the funding at about $45,000 per year — a milder per-year cut than the school would have had to deal with if Pena-Herrera had lessened spending in 2008.

Two years and two principals later, P.S. 114 has shed teachers and tutoring programs in order to pay the city back. The school asked for and received a reprieve last year, meaning that this year it has to pay back about $70,000. Now that the city plans to close the school, some teachers and parents are blaming students’ low test scores on the cuts.

“We have no funding for academic intervention services, none for professional development, for after school programs, and by the end of last year we couldn’t even pay for substitutes teachers,” said Maria Shalbinski, the school’s chapter leader.

Shalbinski said that the school’s current principal Charmaine Luke excessed two guidance counselors and six teachers — one from each grade level — and increased class sizes in order to keep spending down. Luke refused a request for comment.

Earlier this week, while Chancellor Cathie Black was touring schools in each of the five boroughs, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew went to P.S. 114. He said the school shouldn’t have to pay Pena-Herrera’s debt when, for years, teachers and parents petitioned the city for her removal.

“It’s one of the clearest examples I’ve ever seen of the DOE’s incompetence in managing a school building,” he said. “Instead of the DOE being accountable, they’re now blaming the school.”

If the city wins approval for P.S. 114’s closure, the school will not enroll students in kindergarten, first, or second grade next year. The city plans to open a district school and a charter school in the building.