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Walcott: Projected $64 million cut to schools only temporary

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott repeated a promise not to touch principals’ budgets next year, saying that a proposed cut in school funding that would cost the city more than 1,100 teaching positions would likely disappear once the city finalizes its budget later this spring.

Of the 5,000 teachers who typically leave the system each year, the preliminary 2013 budget projects that only about 4,000 would be replaced, which would save about $64 million, according to the city’s preliminary budget . But Walcott said that funding would likely be restored in time for the final budget and that principals would be able to hire for any vacated positions.

City Council members pestered Walcott about that and much more at a hearing this afternoon on the agency’s $19.6 billion budget, a 1 percent increase that won’t cover the added expenses the department expects. While last year’s hearings focused almost solely on opposition to a proposal to layoff thousands of teachers, the concerns raised by elected officials today spanned a range of the city’s education policies, including increased class sizes, the small schools initiative, spending on technology and contracts, and Medicaid collection.

But they reserved most of their early criticism on the $64 million cut in areas that directly fund schools. The decreased sum represents a headcount reduction of 1,117 teacher positions, according to the city’s projections.

“Year after year the DOE has made cuts to school budgets,” said Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson. “How are schools supposed to make do next year given the loss of funding proposed in the budget?”

Walcott warned that preliminary projections were just that and insisted that principals would not have their budgets slashed for a fifth straight year.

“It’s my goal and our hope to make sure that the budget stay flat without having any cuts to our schools,” Walcott said. “We’re going to work very hard within the system that any type of absorptions be done centrally.”

It’s a brighter fiscal situation this year, thanks to funding that is being restored at the state level. Last year, the city lost a total of $1.7 billion in state and federal aid.

This year, the city is getting back $224 million back from state aid, a figure that was locked down today when the state legislature and Gov. Cuomo signed off on a final budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

“These funds will begin to provide some much needed breathing room for our principals and school communities who have been forced to make tough decisions with regard to school staffing and programming over the past several years,” Walcott said in his testimony.

It’s a pledge that Walcott has made several times since the end of last year’s budget cycle, when the education department slashed $189 million out of individual schools’ budgets, a 2.4 percent decline that resulted in the reduction of more than 2,000 teaching positions and hundreds of school aide layoffs.

Mulgrew criticized the projected cuts and attrition, saying that was another example of misplaced priorities on the part of the DOE.

“All this is part of the larger disinvestment in our public institutions and our communities,” Mulgrew said in his testimony.

Brad Lander, who released a report yesterday that found class sizes have risen in already large elementary classrooms, said he wants the department to study the effect that class sizes were having on academic achievement, an idea that Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky welcomed.

“I agree that teacher quality matters enormously, but parents don’t want their kids in classrooms of 30 or more,” Lander said.

Other Council members used the opportunity to plug schools in their district. Bedford-Stuyesant’s Al Vann outlined Boys & Girls High School’s recent athletic championships – city, state and national championships for the boys track and field and and basketball teams – and then promised that academic progress would soon follow. “Mark my word, within a few years, Boys & Girls will be one of the highest-rated schools in the city.”

In a heated exchange about college readiness for black and Latino students, Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams said the city’s policies had failed that segment of the population.

“They’re either too dumb to get educated, too dumb to be able to get a job, deserve what they get when they’re in the hands of police or something is wrong and we’re not addressing it,” Williams said. “We get teflon commissioners or teflon chancellors who say all the right things, but time and time again, things are not changing.”

Walcott took issue with Williams’ characterization. He said his work on education in the Bloomberg administration, which launched the $127 million Young Men’s Initiative last year, has focused on that student population.

“I will never ever be lectured by any individual as far as my role, our role, in trying to improve the outcomes for black and Latino students,” Walcott said.