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‘We are at the bone’: Carranza warns that NYC schools have little left to slash as state budget cuts loom

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza

New York City’s education department is bracing for a wave of state budget cuts, which could directly hit students across the city, Chancellor Richard Carranza warned Tuesday.

On the heels of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to cut over $827 million from the education department, there is no room for additional cuts without painful effects on classrooms, Carranza told City Council members at a budget hearing.

“Students are going to feel bigger class sizes, students are going to feel the reduction in services, the reduction in enrichment activities,” Carranza said of the budget that has already been proposed.

He pushed back against lawmakers who have argued there should be more cuts to the education department’s central administration rather than to individual schools. “There is no fat to cut, there is no meat to cut — we are at the bone.”

The nation’s largest school system is facing a precarious economic position as the coronavirus is projected to blow multi-billion dollar holes in the state and city budgets, which provide more than 90% of the education department’s funding. So far, the city is reducing education spending by about 3% next fiscal year, including more than $100 million in direct cuts to school budgets — the first time education spending has decreased since de Blasio took office.

The de Blasio administration has proposed slashing a slew of other initiatives including a program to ease students’ path to college, an effort to provide individual counseling for middle school students, and the mayor’s push to expand pre-K to 3-year-olds. The department is rethinking billions of dollars in future capital projects, including improvements to make buildings accessible to students with disabilities, and has also instituted a hiring freeze.

This might be the tip of the iceberg as the city is anticipating additional “large cuts to our budget as soon as this week,” the chancellor said, referring to expected state budget cuts for cities and towns across New York.

“Under these circumstances, and without additional direct support from the federal government, we simply cannot afford to maintain school budgets and programs at [fiscal year] 2020 levels,” Carranza said. 

Federal aid in response to the coronavirus has been earmarked to help high-poverty districts like New York City, but it has largely not trickled down. Though the state received $716.9 million specifically for New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo cut exactly the same amount from the city’s budget, effectively replacing state dollars with federal ones.

In recent weeks, city lawmakers have pressed the education department to come up with cuts that would not directly affect classrooms, a recurring theme at Tuesday’s hearing.

Brooklyn City Council member Mark Treyger has said that the education committee he chairs has identified millions of dollars in duplicative administrative costs, contracts, and other spending that should be reduced, though the committee has not released a formal list of alternatives.

The city should explore possible cuts to the borough offices that support schools and provide training as well as consultants for the city’s Thrive initiative, an embattled program to support mental health, Treyger told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. He added that those cuts could be made without directly impacting students.

City officials also noted Tuesday that the department will save at least $74 million on school bus services, as the buses remain idle and drivers have been furloughed. That could help offset direct cuts to classrooms, Treyger suggested.

“I am very troubled by the disproportionate impact on school budgets,” he said.

The cuts come at a time when uncertainty remains about what the next school year could look like and whether it will be safe to return to school buildings in September. It is also a time when many students will have great academic and social-emotional needs. 

The chancellor told elected officials the city would reopen schools only at the direction of public health experts. Even then, students could return to school in “phases” or attend school on alternate days to avoid unsafe conditions — mirroring calls from the city’s teachers union, which has criticized the education department for its handling of the epidemic when cases were reported in city schools.

“My goal is to return us to the normal school day with the full functioning of schools as quickly as possible,” de Blasio said at an unrelated press conference Tuesday. But he acknowledged alternative schedules might be necessary. “It’s way too early to know which it will be.”

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