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Walcott defends budget against fierce council opposition

Underscored by an intervention from the council’s top budget broker, education committee members rang a unified tone at their hearing today, telling schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott they won’t support his final budget if a plan to eliminate thousands of teaching positions isn’t reversed.

Sources and council members said Mayor Bloomberg’s current budget proposal would not have enough votes to pass at the end of the month because of the layoffs. The city has maintained the layoffs are necessary to eliminate a $350 million education deficit.

“I just don’t see how I would vote for a budget that lays off 4000 teachers,” said Brad Lander, of Park Slope, echoing a sentiment shared by several other members.

The chorus of opposition started an hour before the hearing, when no less than 15 council members from the committee joined protesters on City Hall steps to punctuate their opposition to the cuts.

Walcott repeatedly defended the budget as members challenged ballooning contract costs and bureaucratic waste. They said that curbing those expenses could make up the difference to save teaching jobs.

Walcott emphasized that the department uses most contracts to offer required student services, such as transportation and special education. Elected officials often distort the role of consultants, Walcott said, to justify ending their contracts.”But consultants are also vital to school services,” he said.

Education chair Robert Jackson called Walcott’s explanation “unacceptable” in light of contracting scandals that have emerged during Bloomberg’s third term.

A plan unveiled by Speaker Christine Quinn and Finance Chair Domenic Recchia, Jr. also took aim at department contracts. They proposed alternative cuts based on a “line by line” examination of the budget which amounted to $75 million in savings that they said “could go towards saving teachers and preventing layoffs.”

The plan would trim millions of dollars from four types of outside contracts: technology, professional development, student bus transportation, and teacher recruitment.

It also included cuts to three administrative offices – Community Engagement, Public Affairs and Family Information and Action – which officials said performed many of the same responsibilities.

Walcott reminded the council that their proposed savings amounted to just a fraction of whats needed to avert layoffs.

In addition, department officials said many of the alternative cuts aren’t practical.

“We certainly share the City Council’s concern about the impact of seniority-based layoffs on our school system, and appreciate their willingness to suggest alternative cuts,” spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz said. “However, many of their suggestions are not legally feasible, and it would be fiscally imprudent for the DOE to adjust projected spending on mandated services.”

In statements, the teachers and principals unions applauded the council’s efforts and said even more could be done.

“Imagine how much more progress we could make if the DOE leadership sat down with the people who actually work in the schools to get their ideas of how the system could save money and help kids,” said UFT spokesman Dick Riley.