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Council members say DOE gave them no chance to stop layoffs

On the first day back to work since 672 school aides were laid off, City Council members unloaded criticism on Chancellor Dennis Walcott for what they said was an intentional failure to notify them about the layoffs.

In several tense exchanges with Walcott, Finance Committee Chair Domenic Recchia, Jr. repeatedly claimed that council members were kept in the dark about the layoffs. If they’d known the layoffs were possible, Recchia said the Council would have acted to stop them, just as it did for teachers this summer.

At one point, Recchia ordered a staff member to hand deliver a budget document to Walcott, seated 30 feet away at the testimonial desk, and asked him to read it.

“Nowhere in the executive budget did you say you were going to lay off school aides,” Recchia said. “We would have done something about it and you didn’t tell us.”

But in his testimony and in subsequent exchanges, Walcott pointed out that Recchia and his colleagues in the Council actually signed off on a budget agreement that “made clear” that an additional 1,000 non-uniform and non-pedagogical employees could lose their jobs.

Echoing previous statements, the Chancellor said the layoffs did not show up specifically in the executive budget because they were cuts made by principals in July to reduce individual school budgets by an average of 2.4 percent.

He said that while the agreement didn’t explicitly name school aides, it did not exclude them either and Deputy Chancellor Dave Weiner, who also testified, said he frequently warned Local 372 President Santos Crespo that principals historically excess school aides first when faced with budget cuts.

Crespo refuted that he was ever warned about his workers’ job security. He also said that several of the meetings with the DOE that Weiner cited were entirely unrelated to the discussion of layoffs.

“These layoffs represented a portion of the larger $178 million in savings that schools needed to identify,” Walcott said.

The DOE estimated that the layoffs saved $35 million but the city is expected to pay at least $7 million for projected unemployment benefits for people who are now out of a job. Recchia said he estimated that total could rise to $11 million because many of the unemployed qualify for food stamps.

Other members used their five minutes of questioning to bring up broader issues about the layoffs. Several members, including Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson, suggested that politics played a role in the layoffs because the union that represented the workers also happened to be the most vocally opposed to a labor concession deal proposed by the city earlier in the year.

Letitia James called the layoffs “unconscionable” and pointed to the fact that a disproportionate amount of the layoffs affected minority women who were among the lowest paid public workers in New York City. Dave Weiner confirmed that 60 percent of the laid off workers were women and 80 percent were minorities.

The City Council members’ anger is not likely to gain traction. Last week, Mayor Bloomberg announced a citywide job freeze on top of additional cuts of $567 million facing the DOE in next year’s budget. If anything, Walcott said, the reductions “would require continued sacrificed from all of us.”

For the second time in a week, however, Walcott said he wanted to concentrate all future cuts on the central office and avoid additional cuts to schools.