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Mayor: layoff threat "more realistic" this year than ever before

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today that his threats to cut more than 6,100 teaching positions — including over 4,600 through layoffs — should be taken more seriously than ever before, and the city will have to fight to avoid even more cuts across city agencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget reduces state aid to New York City schools by $1.4 billion, and the city schools system is also facing the end of $850 million in federal stimulus funds. To negate those cuts, the city has moved $1.86 billion in city funds to the Department of Education since June, Bloomberg said today.

But overall city expenses are still rising enough to necessitate the cuts in teaching positions, which were originally projected in the city’s preliminary budget outlined in November, the mayor argued.

Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew said that the mayor’s layoff proposal was “more and more bizarre,” given the increase in city revenue going to fill in gaps in DOE funding and the Cuomo administration’s claims that state cuts should not mean local layoffs.

“We’ve already lost nearly 5,000 teachers to attrition in the last two years, and class sizes are skyrocketing across the city,” Mulgrew said. “It’s time the Mayor joined us in fighting for the children of our city by supporting the extension of the state millionaire’s tax, rather than continuing to focus, as he and Chancellor Black did in Albany this week, on a bogus strategy to lay teachers off.”

The mayor’s budget proposal is based on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget, and both budgets are far from finalized. State legislators have a spring deadline to pass a budget, and the city’s deadline is in June. For the past several years, city officials have suggested that teacher layoffs were the only way to close budget gaps, only to find other ways to cover holes.

But Bloomberg said today that because city funds are covering much larger gaps this year, layoff threats are “more realistic” than in years past.

As the threat of teacher layoffs has loomed in recent weeks, Bloomberg and Black have ramped up their campaign against the state law that requires the most recently hired teachers to be laid off first; instead, they want layoffs to be conducted on the basis of merit.

A big question mark in the city’s plan has been how officials would define merit if the seniority-based layoffs were abolished. The state recently overhauled its teacher evaluation law, but those changes will not be in place in time to use if layoffs happened this year.

Bloomberg and Black have argued the city should start by laying off the roughly 1,800 teachers whose principals rated them unsatisfactory last year and the roughly 1,200 teachers currently in the absent teacher reserve, which means they lack full-time faculty positions in schools.

The mayor’s plan would lay off an additional 1,600 teachers who don’t fall into either of those categories, in addition to the positions lost through attrition. For the first time today, Black suggested that the next step would be to fire teachers who have racked up a large number of unexcused absences. Her remarks echo recommendations made earlier this week by the group Educators 4 Excellence, who have been campaigning against seniority-based layoffs with the support of some of Bloomberg’s political allies.

“There is a place to start,” Black said.

The DOE couldn’t confirm today how many teachers with many unexcused absences are currently working in the system. Earlier this week, city officials said that 7.1 percent of the city’s roughly 80,000 teachers took more than 16 absences last school year, but could not say how many of those teachers’ absences were excused.

Black also said the department had not yet analyzed precisely how the loss of more than 6,100 teaching positions would impact classrooms, though she acknowledged that classes in the city will almost certainly get bigger.

The chancellor argued that eliminating the seniority-based layoff system would help mitigate the impact of layoffs to the classroom directly, because teachers in the absent teacher reserve pool are not in the classroom now. In fact, many teachers in the reserve pool do work in classrooms as substitutes, and some are given full class loads, though the exact numbers of ATRs working in schools has been difficult to obtain.

Even with the layoffs, the spending plan that Bloomberg presented this afternoon also relies on $600 million in state support that Albany has not yet committed to providing. The city is asking for $200 million more in education aid and changes to the state’s revenue sharing plan and fund for retired police and fire department employees that would yield an additional $400 million.

If state legislators don’t provide the additional funds, however, the overall city budget may be cut again to make up for the shortfall. That potential cut would be spread across all city agencies and would likely affect DOE spending but not necessarily increase the number of layoffs, Bloomberg said.

“I think it will be a struggle to get the $600 million to fill in the deficit,” the mayor said, arguing that the city was even less likely to receive more state funding to mitigate layoffs.

Schools Chancellor Cathie Black said that although she would continue to advocate for more education funding, she believed layoffs will happen this year. “I think we have seen the reality of it laid out today,” Black said.

Read the mayor’s financial plan summary for next year here.

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