Fireworks at Dennis Walcott's debut at the education budget hearings

On Friday, the hearing room at the former Emigrant Bank (City Hall is under renovation) was full of expectant reporters, parents, and government officials, eager to see if the chancellor-designee Dennis Walcott would bring a new spirit of collaboration or new ideas to what is usually very contentious hearings on the mayor’s preliminary operating budget for the Department of Education.

The morning started with City Council Education Chair Robert Jackson pointing out that the huge cuts to teachers in the mayor’s proposed budget – with over six thousand positions eliminated, while no cuts were made to central administration or the mid-level bureaucracy -- indicated a troubling lack of concern for the potential consequences for children of increased class size and overcrowding:

Rather than cutting spending on consultants and private contractors, they chose to cut schools. Rather than slowing or halting the pace of costly school closings, they chose to cut teachers. Rather than freezing rents when the real estate market tanked, they chose to increase class size.”

Jackson also questioned the determination of the DOE to increase capital spending on technology while decreasing spending on building new schools: “ A wireless internet connection does nothing for a student without a seat!” (Here is his opening statement.)

Walcott was accompanied by DOE Chief Academic Officer Shael Suransky and Chief Financial Officer Veronica Conforme. From the very start, his testimony sounded familiar. Following a brief account of his life story and how he and his children attended NYC public schools, he repeated the claims of great progress that we have heard countless time from DOE officials: “By any measure, the gains our students have made in recent years have been extraordinary – far outpacing the rest of the State and cities across the nation.” (Not really, guys.)

Then he got to the main point: that the DOE had “no choice” but to lay off thousands of teachers, but that “under no terms will we compromise the quality of services and instruction that our students receive” Instead they would find “more efficient ways” to serve their needs.

He ended with several minutes of argument about how LIFO (Last in, first out) must end -- and how the city must eliminate seniority protections for teachers. In other words, the warmed over hash we’ve been hearing for months out of City Hall and DOE.

Robert Jackson was incensed. He said bringing up LIFO yet again was “beating a dead horse” and the state legislature wasn’t buying this. CM Ignizio, the ranking Republican on the committee, agreed that ending LIFO “isn’t happening this year…The question we have is not who we should lay off, but can we avoid it altogether.”

Ignizio said that as a student, “I was one who benefited from smaller class sizes” and asked why DOE couldn’t use some of the expected billion dollar surplus this year to “offset” the need for teacher layoffs.

He asked what these layoffs would mean in terms of increasing class size. Walcott and the assembled DOE officials did not seem to know the answer to this obvious question, but after some whispering back and forth, came out with an additional “1.5 student per class” . This, Walcott assured the Council, wasn’t so bad, given the fact that the administration had been steadily decreasing class size. Ignizio and other members were justifiably skeptical and pointed out that class sizes had sharply risen over the last three years. They also expressed doubt that eliminating 10% of all teachers would cause class sizes to rise only that much.

Altogether, there was a startling lack of fact and substance from the DOE officials, especially for a department that claims to be “data driven.”

In response to a question from CM Brad Lander, Walcott and the other top officials said that they had no idea what the class sizes caps were. Lander was concerned about whether there was a “change in policy” with class sizes in grades 1-3 going up 32 in many of the schools, which they didn’t know about either. (Answer: the UFT had a “side agreement” that the DOE had previously adhered to, to limit class sizes in grades 1-3 to 28 – which they are now forcing principals to override, in part to shrink K waiting lists.)

Walcott insisted that the recent increases in class size were due primarily to the tremendous job the DOE is doing with our schools, causing them to become “more popular” (ignoring the effects of rising birth rates, overdevelopment, and the decline of parochial schools – as well as the DOE's incompetent planning --all of which has contributed to the overcrowding crisis.)

Most astonishingly, the DOE officials wavered all over the place about how much extra funding would have to be found to avoid the need to eliminate 6,166 teaching positions. Walcott’s written testimony said $435 M, but then somehow during questioning this amount increased to $700 M. In the mayor’s November budget plan, the loss of 5778 positions was supposed to “save” $350 million; extrapolating from these figures, the loss of 6166 positions should amount to $377 million in savings – quite different from the $435 million figure in Walcott’s written testimony and even further from the $700 million Conforte claimed verbally.

CM Margaret Chin asked why central’s budget for full-time civilian positions is supposed to increase by $23.1 million, or 22.1 percent, while the budget for full-time pedagogical positions will decrease by $11.3 million, a 64.1 percent . They had no explanation for this either. (For more on this see the Council’s briefing paper.)

CM Jumaane Williams pointed out the conflict in Walcott’s claim that the DOE would not allow services to kids to degrade, while radically increasing class sizes. He asked about an 80% increase in IT and computer contracts. Charles Barron said that there was a “revenue deficit” not a budget deficit, and suggested that the city could raise funds easily: just “stop and frisk white men on Wall Street to see if they had any toxic derivatives” in their pockets.

Barron suggested that Walcott should simply ask the mayor to stop the layoffs: “"When you all go to lunch or breakfast or caviar at his mansion or whatever you do, I think it's important to influence him.”

Gail Brewer asked how many people were employed in the clusters and the Children First Networks; the DOE said they would get back to them on that question. Brewer noted that the principals in her district don’t know what the CFN people are doing, and even some of the CFN staffers have admitted to her that they had no idea.

In response to a question about the disproportionate share of public dollars that charter school students in DOE buildings receive compared to district students, Walcott suggested that all schools were subject to the same “Fair student funding” (FSF) formula. (This is incorrect; charter schools are not subject to FSF, which means that they are even more overfunded if the fact that they enroll fewer free lunch, ELL and special ed students is considered.)

At one point, Suransky claimed that they were considering eliminating some of the interim assessments to save money. But then Stephen Levin asked why they were adding even more assessments, in grades 3-12, in four different subjects, that will likely mean 16 different contracts, and requested information on how much would they cost.

Suransky claimed not to know how much they would pay for all these new tests, and that the UFT “fought hard” for local assessments to be included in the teacher evaluation system. He claimed that the DOE was “obligated” to develop “solutions,” a “new set of tools” and “prototypes” for more “authentic assessments”, including in subjects not yet tested by the State. (Later, Michael Mulgrew blasted these contracts, saying they were a complete “waste of money” since the UFT has not yet agreed to them, and they would have to be negotiated before being given.)

Others council members asked why the total headcount for central administration was projected to rise in FY to more than 2,000 educrats and not to diminish thereafter, despite promises to cut the positions at central. Ms. Conforte explained that though the current levels at central were supposed to have fallen to 1600, this never happened, and that the headcount at central is currently 2,000 officials. Thus,1800 really represents a decrease. (!) (According to the Council briefing paper, there is no projected decline in the DOE budget documents: “The headcount total in the Preliminary Budget for Fiscal 2012 is 2,097, 73 positions above the Fiscal 2011 level … The Department has not provided an explanation for the aforementioned changes in the Preliminary Budget.”)

Asked about the rising costs of outsourcing IT contracts and consultants, Conforte claimed that hiring in-house IT experts was “difficult” especially finding people who could “build new data systems.” This led into a discussion of ARIS, the $80 million dollar supercomputer outsourced to IBM and Wireless Generation, that is widely considered to be a waste, especially as compared to Datacation system developed by NYC teachers at very little cost, and that over 200 schools prefer instead. Suransky claimed that if all schools were to adopt Datacation, it would be too “expensive,” compared to ARIS which they provided free to schools (but not to taxpayers!).

Council members Brad Lander and Steve Levin said the mayor is partly responsible for the decline in state funding, since Bloomberg had opposed the continuation of the millionaire’s tax, and both said that the Mayor should ask for a “home rule” message from the legislature, so the city could itself raise taxes on the wealthy.

Levin asked if the state was in “violation of CFE” and if so, if the DOE planned to sue the state. Walcott said no. (Presumably, despite complaining about the loss of state funding, they are happy not to have to conform to any of the CFE guidelines that went with these funds.)

CM Eric Ulrich went on about much he admired Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg , but then complained about the loss of yellow buses to middle school students in his constituents in Breezy Point, who have been given Metrocards instead , despite the fact that there is no public transportation in the area. He also criticized the mayor for saying he planned to take the lawsuit that residents lodged against the elimination of busing “all the way up to the Supreme Court,” which Walcott disputed.

At some point during the proceedings, Walcott made a comment that he had “no evidence” that DOE had ever “done anything wrong.” Finally, after four hours of questioning and confusing if not downright evasive responses, Walcott and his retinue of DOE staffers left the room, and Michael Mulgrew, head of the UFT, took the stage.

Mulgrew blasted Walcott’s testimony: “I am sick of the fact that we cannot get any credible information from the DOE; I do not trust them at all….There is a tremendous political game being played; it’s so disgusting. Their facts are devoid of any facts….They are basically lying in open testimony.”

He pointed out how their figures had shifted for the dollar amount that would be “saved” by the projected layoffs, that our schools were suffering a “crisis” in class size not seen since 1977; that one third of children in K-3 are already in classes over 27; that the system had already lost 5,000 teachers over the past two years, and these layoffs would cause a further 13% jump in class size, with a 33% increase in grades 1st -3rd. (Here is his written testimony.)

Clearly, he pointed out, teachers are more effective when they have classes of twenty students rather than thirty, as he knew from his own days as a teacher; moreover, smaller classes in the early years can predict the future success of a child.

He argued that there are huge potential savings in the astounding $4.6 billion DOE spends on outside contracts, $40 million for outside management consultants, and $36 million for computer consultants. DOE has added 218 positions to the central bureaucracy; and recently, the UFT had pointed out to DOE the fact that there was a $300 M surplus in their own operating budget for salaries; the next day they came out with a new document in which this $300 M had disappeared from view.

Mulgrew said that DOE had never come to him or anyone else in the UFT to ask where savings could be made to prevent 6,000 positions being eliminated. Jackson asked, incredulously, “They never came to you?”

“It never happened.” Mulgrew responded. “We could figure out how to save money if we really needed to, and could help; but Albany told us there is no point in giving NYC more money because Bloomberg wants to lay off teachers anyway, to make a point.”

He also said that the surplus at the end of the year will likely be $4 billion; or nearly over a billion more than the city has projected, making these cuts completely unnecessary.

Mulgrew spoke about the international conference of education leaders that was recently held in NYC; and how these international experts found DOE’s system and the 50% teacher attrition rate “crazy.” Other countries don’t pay teacher more, he said, but they also don’t demean and attack teachers the way the DOE does. They said to him, “how do you move schools forward if you don’t support teachers?”

CM Dominic Recchia asked about the teachers on Absent Teacher reserve; Mulgrew said that there were over one thousand of these teachers, but 89% of were already working in full-time positions in schools or covering for long-term absences. Schools don’t want to hire them permanently because then their salaries have to be paid out of the school budget, but as ATRs, their salaries are covered by DOE. As to Fair Student Funding, it was a tremendous mistake by DOE to make principals cover the full costs of their staffing: “Even Michelle Rhee said that doing this was a mistake,” he claimed, and she reversed course after one year.

Gail Brewer asked about the $21 million DOE contract for teacher recruitment through the New Teacher Project, and whether it was necessary. Mulgrew said no, they could just go to local education schools and ask how their graduates can’t get hired unless they go through these “institutes” which get “bonuses” for recruiting teachers who would be eager to be hired anyway.

The ARIS system, he said, was worthless, especially as compared to Datacation, because when the DOE Accountability office contracted out the development of ARIS, they failed to ask any teachers or parents what their actual needs were.

Asked about the Children First networks, he pointed out these staffers cover five boroughs, which is highly inefficient, because a social worker who works part time at one school cannot also work at the co-located school in the same building. All this defies “common sense.” (According to other sources, the network people spend most of the day driving from one borough to the next; since these networks were purposely designed not to be geographically based in order to further undermine the power of district superintendents, parents, and communities.)

Recchia asked him about the new automated special education data system, and revealed that he gets complaints all the time from parents about this system. Mulgrew testified that the rest of the state was offered a data system for free, but DOE insisted on building its own separate system, which cost $50 million, and is so faulty that NYC is now “out of compliance” on special education.

Next up were Santos Crespo of DC 37, and Randi Herman, VP of the CSA, the principals union. Neither of their ranks is projected to experience layoffs, they said, as opposed to teachers, though Crespo said that their members can lose jobs when principals’ budgets are cut.

Randi Herman said that right now the fair student funding is not “working,” that schools are only being funded at 86% of what the formula requires, and “they have not fully funded FSF in years”. She said she was told by Veronica Conforme that the DOE is considering diverting even more funding from elementary schools to middle schools, but that none of the schools could “stretch dollars” any further.

In response to questions from CM Greenfield, they both said that the DOE had not reached out to CSA or DC 37 to ask them for any ideas for budget savings. Crespo said that this was not surprising, since DOE never discussed any of their plans with the union in advance. Greenfield said that the DOE is very unusual in their lack of collaboration, since other city agencies generally reach out to the council to discuss budget options.

Finally, parents got a chance to speak, including Carlton Curry of CPAC, Ann Kjellberg of the Public School Political Action committee, Khem Irby of CEC 13, and me.

My testimony is posted here, in which I further describe the class size crisis, areas in the DOE budget that should be cut, and other sources of possible funding to fill in the gap.

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