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In shift from recent past, city's budget plan boosts school funds

The education proposals that Mayor Bloomberg announced during his State of the City speech last week made no appearance at his budget briefing today.

Nor did the policy he had pushed last year during the budget process, an end to seniority-based layoff rules.

In fact, in his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins in July, Bloomberg said little about schools except that the Department of Education is among the only city agencies not set to experience budget cuts. The city is planning to spend $13.6 billion on schools in 2012-2013, and layoffs are not on the table.

That’s good news for principals, who said last year (as they had in the past) that they could not fathom cutting anything more in their schools.

But the budget proposal counts on some revenue that is not at all assured — increased school aid from the state.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, of course, has said the aid increase would go only to districts that have new teacher evaluations in place. So far, the city and teachers union have been unable to agree on new evaluations and do not appear on the brink of doing so.

But Bloomberg said today he was not worried about Cuomo’s threat, arguing that the aid increases were slated well before Cuomo’s recent ultimatum.

“In terms of the governor’s budget I think this coming year’s education money is locked in and not contingent on anything,” Bloomberg said.

Some cuts are slated to day care programs: About 16,000 spots will disappear under the proposed budget, a fact that has drawn swift and vocal criticism from advocates of early childhood education.

“We just can’t do everything,” Bloomberg said today.

The main constraint, and the emphasis of his budget presentation, is that the city’s pension burden is “a ticking time bomb,” he said. For the first time, the pensions and benefits to be paid out to uniformed workers (firefighters, police, sanitation, etc.) this year will exceed what the city spends on their wages, Bloomberg said.

He applauded Cuomo for proposing pension reform that would change the benefits calculation for new works.

Asked whether reducing the promised pension returns for future workers might undermine the city’s bid to get top college graduates into classrooms as teachers, a goal he outlined in his State of the City speech, Bloomberg said he didn’t anticipate a problem.

“I don’t think new teachers getting out of school are concerned about pensions,” he said. “They’re more concerned with changing the world.”

Bloomberg did say, during the question-and-answer portion of the budget briefing, that he is optimistic that the city will be able to negotiate with the teachers union for incentive pay, in the form of college loan forgiveness, to go to high-achieving college students who become city teachers. But he did not mention that plan, or the funds that would underwrite it, during his budget presentation.

One reason for the city’s additional education outlay, Bloomberg explained, is that the city is picking up the slack left by the state and federal government when stimulus funding ran out. Ten years ago, he said, the city and state shared funding for the city schools roughly evenly. But after a decade of increasing spending on schools, the city now covers two-thirds of the bill. Last year, Bloomberg blamed the post-stimulus funding cliffs for the layoffs threat last year.

Last year, the choice was to “either lay off teachers or reach into our pockets,” Bloomberg said today. “We chose to reach into our pockets.”

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