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In de Blasio’s first budget, uncertainty and a belief that money matters

The education line in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed budget rests on two big assumptions: that he can convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo to chip in $500 million more to the city this year, and that his own prekindergarten funding plan will prevail over Cuomo’s.

De Blasio revealed those assumptions in his first budget presentation today, in which he said his $73 billion city budget would move the city toward greater equity. The budget included $500 million in additional state school aid and $530 million that his proposed pre-K tax would generate, even though lawmakers have signaled that they are unlikely to support the tax.

The $500 million in state aid, de Blasio said, would be a first step in restoring funds owed to the city as the result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which ended with a determination that the state had been shortchanging the city’s schools. The new funds would allow the city to reduce class sizes and offer “a lot more academic intervention at the elementary school level,” he said during a press conference at City Hall.

De Blasio painted a bleaker portrait of the school system than the one that’s been offered by his schools chancellor, who has focused on the positive in her first six weeks in office. De Blasio said the additional funds are necessary because city schools are not performing adequately.

“We have a mountain to climb when it comes to public education,” he said, referring to data showing that most city students do not graduate from high school ready for college. “We are not even close to where we need to be when it comes to preparing our young people for their lives.”

De Blasio’s push for new funds has many allies in the state legislature and received an extra jolt this week by a new lawsuit reprising the same argument made in the CFE case, that more money was needed to improve schools. But it’s another area of education policy where the mayor and governor disagree. Cuomo disputed the lawsuit’s central tenet in a radio interview yesterday.

“We spend more than any other state in the country,” Cuomo said. “It ain’t about the money. It’s about how you spend it—and the results.”

De Blasio was not specific in his presentation about how his executive budget would deal with more than 150 labor contracts that need to be negotiated by unions who are clamoring for what could amount to more than $7 billion in retroactive raises. 

The general theme was nonetheless praised by United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, whose union is asking for $3.2 billion in backpay.

“Mayor de Blasio’s preliminary budget is a welcome departure from the years of Bloomberg crying poverty while rolling up huge annual surpluses,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “We have a long way to go to solve the problems caused by the previous administration, but a budget that recognizes the steady improvement in the city’s economy and sets aside significant reserve funds — and a mayor who wants to conduct labor negotiations in ‘an atmosphere of partnership’ —  are important steps in the right direction.”