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23rd July
2004

First Published in The New York Sun, July 23, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

 For the first time in more than a quarter century, there will be deep cuts to school budgets that will reach the classroom. Dispatches from principals from every corner of Gotham’s school system, as well as from the business types who inhabit the cubicles in the six regional operating centers, confirm that virtually all schools received budget cuts that in some cases exceed 20%. 

    These are not cuts to the bureaucracy. This is what principals term “blood money,” the minimal required funding to run their schools.These cuts were first reported last week in the Staten Island Advance and Newsday. 

    This is despite an increase of $264 million in funding to the $14.5 billion education budget and a restructuring that was billed as generating a $100 million cost savings to be diverted into the classrooms. It is now clear that if there were administrative savings,they are not benefiting New York City’s public school children. 

    Where did the money go? Some went into paying “coaches,” the army of bureaucrats charged with enforcing the mandates of the whole language and fuzzy math curriculum put in place by the departed former deputy chancellor, Diana Lam. As much as $60 million — enough to pay for one new teacher in every school in the system — has been put into the parent coordinators, their city-paid cellular telephones and the bureaucracy behind them.This position exists in no other public school system, a frill that cannot be justified at the expense of classroom services. This program has come under criticism by both parents and politicos, most notably Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. 

    Tens of millions — City Comptroller William Thompson Jr., suggests hundreds of millions — have gone into no-bid or one-bid consulting contracts to firms such as Australian United States Services in Education, the Reading and Writing Institute of Columbia University Teachers College,and the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. 

    How much has gone to pay for the “red books” and “blue books” and the supporting CD-ROMs, the guides that mandate minute-by-minute instructional techniques for teachers, is unclear. But the choice of a reading program that does not comply with federal mandates for scientifically validated instruction has cost the system further. 

    Criticism of the mayor’s policy of holding back third-graders scoring at the lowest levels on standardized tests, spurred further unbudgeted spending of $115 million, as charged by City Council Education Committee Chairwoman Eva Moskowitz. Problems with the restructuring of the city’s special education bureaucracy cost tens of millions more, as did the flap over the meltdown of the school security and safety infrastructure. 

    New initiatives, such as the creation of scores of “small schools,” have drawn tens of millions from the existing ones. If you now have six principals, six guidance counselors, and six school secretaries in the same building that used to house one of each, costs are guaranteed to increase in perpetuity. As attractive as these projects sound, there is little objective evidence that they make a difference, and indeed have caused many unanticipated problems this past year. 

    Now the chickens have come home to roost.As things stand, the Department of Education must not only cut back on what they will spend for this year, but also make up a significant deficit from the previous school year. This is the reality behind the bad news being conveyed to principals. 

    With little control over their budgets, and facing even harder times in the coming year, principals appear to be leaving the system at an accelerating rate. An article in the Little Neck Times Ledger last week underscores the problem. Of five middle school principals in the city’s most successful school district — District 26 in Queens — four are leaving their posts. Noting that new mandates and demands are unfunded, reporter Michael Morton quoted a district administrator as saying that principals “have no budget to be in charge of now.” Ironically, if the city ends up receiving new funds resulting from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, much will merely fill the deficit, not finance new educational initiatives. 

    In 1973,city voters,tired of the budget-busting free spending of Mayor Lindsay, turned to the city comptroller,Abraham Beame,an accountant by trade who served for decades as a city bean counter. Running under the slogan, “he knows the buck,” Mr. Beame was just the kind of “nuts and bolts” fellow the voters were looking for. 

    We know how this turned out. Mr. Beame may have “known the buck,” but was forced to confront a budget crisis of historic proportions. Thousands were laid off. City classrooms were particularly hard hit.Not surprisingly,Mr.Beame paid at the polls, defeated in his re-election bid. 

    Mayor Bloomberg was given control of the schools in part because of his perceived business acumen. Unless he can straighten out the budget mess, and actually divert funds back into the classrooms, he could end up paying the same price as Mr. Beame.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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