a rainy day

No across-the-board midyear budget cuts, but trimming begins

Schools won’t have to cut their budgets this month, but they will have to start tightening their belts and won’t be able to sock away any savings for next year.

That’s what Chancellor Dennis Walcott told principals in an email sent Monday evening, the first to name specific actions the Department of Education is taking to make up for $240 in state school aid sacrificed when the city and teachers union failed to agree on new teacher evaluations earlier this month.

Mayor Bloomberg is set to offer details about his plans to close the midyear school budget gap at a press conference later today. But Walcott said the department would absorb enough of the cuts centrally that he would not have to impose cuts of a certain size on each school, as happened several times during the leanest years of the economic recession.

Still, he announced several significant policy changes that could cost schools just the same. The department is doubling down on hiring restrictions, blocking schools from hiring substitute teachers, reducing aides’ schedules, and seizing funds that principals had set aside in this year’s budget for next year.

Starting Feb. 13, school aides working longer than five hours a day will have 30 minutes trimmed off their schedules, Walcott said. “You will need to revise staff workload and responsibilities to accommodate these reductions,” he told principals.

He also said the department would issue fewer exceptions to longstanding (and substantially relaxed) hiring restrictions and would require schools to use teachers assigned to them from the Absent Teacher Reserve before calling in an outside substitutes. Teachers in the ATR pool, those whose positions have been eliminated but who remain on the department’s payroll, have rotated among schools as short– and long-term substitutes for years.

And in a significant shift, Walcott announced that schools would not be able to hold onto any funds from this year to use next year through a program known as the “Deferred Budget Planning Initiative.” In 2010, department officials reversed plans to tap into the rainy-day funds after principals argued the cuts would penalize them for planning prudently. But two years ago, the department garnished some of the savings, allowing principals to hold on to the rest.

Now, principals have an incentive to spend their last cent on supplies and teacher training rather than set aside funds for next year, when the budget situation could be worse. Earlier on Monday, Bloomberg told legislators that the midyear loss, combined with proposed cuts next year, could cost the city 2,500 teaching positions and 700,000 hours of after-school programming over the next two years.

“No one will roll over when they know they will only get 50 cents on the dollar,” one principal told GothamSchools the last time the rainy-day funds were threatened.

Walcott appeared to acknowledge the spending incentive in his email, in which he told principals that “deadlines for budget modifications and purchasing will be slightly accelerated in the coming months.”

The chancellor’s complete message to principals is below:

Dear Colleagues,

As I shared with you on January 18, we are committed to designing a fair teacher evaluation system that would create meaningful supports and accountability for our teachers. However, despite our hard work over the past two years, the failure of the UFT to accept a fair and reasonable agreement on a new teacher evaluation system has triggered significant adverse effects on our budget, including an immediate reduction of $250 million in State funding.

In addition, Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget for next year includes significant cuts to our school district. At this morning’s State budget hearing, Mayor Bloomberg strongly urged the legislature to take immediate action to modify the Governor’s proposed budget so that it does not penalize our students. I’m writing today to provide you with more information about how we plan to address these upcoming and potential losses.

Immediate budget implications—for this school year

Cuts in central expenses will help offset some of these losses, and there will be no across-the-board PEG to schools this school year. However, we will need to work together to implement the programmatic changes and reductions outlined below. Your network will share more specific guidance with you as these plans are formalized over the next several weeks:

  • We will need to cancel the Deferred Program Planning Initiative that allows you to roll money into the following fiscal year to fund pedagogical staff and programs.
  • Consistent with an agreement with DC37 at the start of this school year to avoid layoffs, we will need to implement a reduction of 30 minutes in the schedules of school aides, supervising school aides, and school health service aides working 5 hours a day or more; and family workers working 6 hours a day or more. You will need to revise staff workload and responsibilities to accommodate these reductions which will go into effect on February 13. Funds associated with this reduction will be removed from your school budget.
  • We must strictly adhere to existing hiring restrictions, which limit the replacement of departing teachers, assistant principals, and guidance counselors to candidates in the ATR pool. Please carefully consider available internal staff before requesting an exception to hire externally.
  • You will need to utilize teachers from the ATR pool who have been rotated into your school in lieu of calling a sub of your own choosing or through Sub Central. When absences occur, assigned ATRs must be used to cover classes before other subs are called in for duty. We will reinstate the prior policy of a 50 percent discount rate, which will be deducted from your school budget.

Given the difficulties of attaining such large savings at the mid-year mark, deadlines for budget modifications and purchasing will be slightly accelerated in the coming months. A calendar with key end dates for financial transaction processing will be included in tomorrow’s Principals’ Weekly.

Anticipated budget implications—for school year 2013-14

While we are advocating strongly to prevent the Governor’s proposed budget from passing in the State legislature, and continuing to pursue solutions to the UFT’s attempt to block a fair evaluation system, it is possible that these additional reductions will become a reality in the 2013-14 school year. The proposed reductions could lead to significant staff attrition and close to 700,000 hours of lost tutoring, coaching, and arts enrichment programs.

Notwithstanding these fiscal challenges, we cannot abandon our goals or lose ground on the progress made so far. We must continue to focus our resources and energies on the needs of our students, striving to ensure that we are preparing them to succeed in our schools and beyond. I thank you for your hard work and flexibility, especially during these difficult times. We will continue to communicate with you about these issues as more information is available.

Dennis M. Walcott

Struggling Detroit schools

The list of promises is long: Arts, music, robotics, gifted programs and more. Will Detroit schools be able to deliver?

PHOTO: Detroit Public Television
Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti answers questions at a community meeting in Detroit.

Arts. Music. Robotics. Programs for gifted kids. New computers. New textbooks. Dual enrollment programs that let high school students take college classes. International Baccalaureate. Advanced Placement.

They’re all on the list of things that Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a group of community members assembled in a Brightmoor neighborhood church that he would introduce or expand as soon as next school year.

Vitti didn’t get into the specifics of how the main Detroit district would find the money or partnerships needed to deliver on all of those promises, but they’re part of the plan for the future, he said.

The comments came in a question and answer session last month with students, parents and community members following Vitti’s appearance on Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal/One Detroit Roadshow. The discussion was recorded at City Covenant Church. DPTV is one of Chalkbeat’s partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.

Vitti has been appearing at community events since taking over the Detroit schools last spring. He is scheduled next week to join officials from two of the city’s major charter school authorizers, Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University, at a State of the Schools address on October 25.


Watch the full Q&A with Vitti below.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.