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At DOE, efforts already underway to cut budget by 2 percent

Chancellor Dennis Walcott indicated today that he wants his central administration to take the brunt of midyear budget cuts.

But he did not explain how the Department of Education would be able to handle even deeper cuts that Mayor Bloomberg said are on the way for next year, when the city faces a $4.6 billion shortfall.

Yesterday, Bloomberg instructed city agencies to figure out how to cut 2 percent from their current budget and 6 percent from next year’s projected budget. He included the DOE in his directive, unlike last year, when he insulated schools and public safety from the full extent of midyear cuts imposed on other agencies.

Walcott said today that DOE officials had already started talking with the city’s Office of Management and Budget about ways to cut spending. Proposals are due Oct. 18.

“I’m confident that we’ll be able to submit something and have that announcement in time for the deadline,” he said. “What we’re doing is working collectively with our staff to find where savings could be and make sure we’re minimizing the impact to schools.”

Midyear budget cuts are doubly disruptive to schools because most expenses are fixed for the whole year, meaning that only certain costs, such as after-school programs or tutoring, can go on the chopping block.

And this year, many principals are operating with less of a cushion against midyear cuts. Prudent principals have long socked away unused money from the previous year into a “rainy day” fund that can be tapped when cuts are required. But as budgets have tightened, principals have been able to save less, and this summer, the DOE for the first time took back some of the funds that they rolled over from last year.

Now, three straight years of budget cuts that have left class sizes on the rise and principals struggling to make ends meet.

“The schools just can’t be cut any more,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew in a statement.

Mulgrew called on Bloomberg to join him in pressing legislators to renew the state’s “millionaire’s tax,” which is set to expire at the end of the year. Bloomberg opposes the tax surcharge for wealthy New Yorkers, which has generated about $4 billion a year in revenue for the state.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said last month that she would put up a fight if Bloomberg proposes teacher layoffs again, something that seems likely given the DOE’s increasingly grim budget outlook.

Despite the budget pressures, Walcott said the department would press forward with its newest initiatives, even though the mayor’s office has imposed a hiring freeze “for the immediate future.”

“We can’t stop our reforms that improve outcomes for our students,” he said. “It’s part of my job to do it in a way that deals with the reality we face with the budget.”

Plans to open 50 new middle schools in the next two years in particular rely heavily on developing new teachers and principals, but Walcott said the hiring freeze and budget cuts would not change the department’s strategy.

“The middle school initiative I announced a few weeks ago will still take place,” he said. “We just have to be smart about how we do it.”