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City again plans to skip public hearings on spending plan

The city is poised to disregard mandatory public hearings about how hundreds of millions of dollars get spent in high-need schools for the sixth straight year.

The hearings, which are supposed to take place in all five boroughs, have been required by state law since city schools began receiving extra state funds known as “Contracts for Excellence” in 2007. The money came out of a landmark lawsuit settlement that awarded aid to schools with large populations of poor students.

But the city has skipped the meetings since 2009, a trend that advocates say is not just a blatant violation of the law. They argue it also means the loss of a crucial accountability step to ensure the funds are spent appropriately, and a missed opportunity to include parents and community members in decision-making.

“I find it just the latest example of DOE’s refusal to engage parents and the public in a meaningful discussion about priorities,” Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer wrote in a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott this week.

This year’s Contracts for Excellence total $530 million, of which $348 million will be distributed to high-need schools or citywide programs. Details of how the city plans to allocate that money were released in August for public comment.

Though the funding is relatively discretionary, it is limited to six areas that have been prescribed to improve educational settings for low-income and high need students. They include class size reduction, extra support for struggling students, improving teacher and principal quality, full-day prekindergarten and programs for English language learners.

But critics have raised questions about whether the funding is used the way it’s meant to be used under the Contracts For Excellence law. The teachers union sued the city in 2010, alleging that the funds were not being used to lower class sizes, which have risen in recent years. The union charged that the city instead used the money to stave off recession-related budget cuts in other areas.

The public comment period for the 2013-2014 school year ends in eight days, making it increasingly unlikely that the education department will get around to holding the hearings. This year, the city has given presentations on the funding to 27 of 32 Community Education Councils—also required under the law—and aims to complete those meetings by Oct. 15.

Update: A spokeswoman said that the department counts the CEC meetings as its borough hearings. “We hold MORE than one public hearing in each county of the city,” the spokeswoman, Erin Hughes, wrote in an email. “Since each CECs holds a public hearing, we have more than one hearing in Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens and one hearing in Staten Island.”

The education department isn’t likely to face any penalties for its failure to comply. A spokesperson said that the city is under no obligation to hold the borough meetings because city lawyers have appealed the judge’s decision that the department had violated the law, delaying the ruling from taking effect.

With just a couple of months left in Mayor Bloomberg’s term, advocates are hoping the issue will be resolved amicably by the next mayor.

“Our hope is that the next mayor acknowledge his clear duty under the Contract for Excellence law, to hold borough-wide public hearings without the need for further litigation,” said Wendy Lecker, the lawyer who originally sued the city to hold hearings.

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