The word came down from on high. In late January, Mayor Bloomberg announced the Department of Education would lose $180 million this school year, in an unusual mid-year budget cut.
Days later, parents packed a community meeting at the old John Jay High School building in Park Slope. Council Member Bill de Blasio (D-Brooklyn) spoke, along with several principals. Then the microphone was handed to the parents.
“There was a lot of despair about how this was going to hurt schools,” said Martha Foote, a Brooklyn parent who attended the meeting. Her 5-year-old son, Jack Burke, just started kindergarten at Public School 321 in Park Slope, described by non-profit InsideSchools.org as one of the finest elementary schools in the city.
Now, Foote and her fellow parents are fighting the school cuts, joined by a growing coalition of educators from across the city.
Fears For Future
On January 30, P.S. 321’s principal Elizabeth Phillips was told to cut about $125,000. So she sat down to pinch pennies from the educations of her 1,200-plus students. When she was done, she wrote a letter to parents and explained exactly how their kids would pay for the city’s budget shortfall.
“I fear what this means for next year in terms of class size, intervention services, and arts programming,” Phillips wrote. She told parents that cuts mean P.S. 321 will lose classroom furniture, math books, and â€œintervention services” — math and language tutoring for students in danger of falling behind.
“If in fact we’re going into a recession, schools need more money, not less,” Phillips said. “If families are losing jobs and homes, we need more guidance counselors and interventions. In times of fiscal crisis, schools should really be exempt from cuts.”
Not surprisingly, the parents at P.S. 321 weren’t happy. The PTA met the next night, and kicked into action. Parents contacted their council members, School Chancellor Joel Klein, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. And on February 14, the P.S. 321 parents marched to Department of Education (DOE) headquarters near City Hall, with parents from across the city.
“These budget cuts are unfair and harmful to our children. They must be stopped, especially in light of recent news articles highlighting the waste at the Department of Education,” P.S. 321’s PTA leaders wrote to parents. The “waste” they cited: no-bid contracts, $80 million spent on practice tests, a recent increase in the number of central employees, and inflated salaries for top executives.
“They’re testing so that they can see, ‘Oh yes, we see we have children that need extra help,'” said P.S. 321 PTA Co-President Julie Markes. “The people that need this extra help are then most impacted by the cuts.”
Some Are Unsympathetic
“Brownstoner,” a prominent Brooklyn real estate and community blog, noted the cuts to P.S. 321 and the parent reaction. “Brownstoner” readers commented 148 times on the story in the next 48 hours.
At least one reader wasn’t entirely sympathetic to the school’s plight. They noted that the shortfall in P.S. 321’s budget is about $100 per student, which pales in comparison to home values in affluent Park Slope:
Total enrollment 1,200+
Approx. Shortfall/student: $100
Modest townhouse in zone cost: $2,000,000
Average home cost per square foot: $800.
“Anyone struggling to muster up sympathy here?” they asked.
Phillips’ school has an unusually involved PTA, which is planning to raise money to help compensate for the city’s cuts, according to Foote. The PTA already funds the school’s after-school fourth- and fifth-grade band, a chess club, an onsite I.T. technician, and provides $400 to each teacher for classroom expenses.
“We recognize that we will be able to do things that other school communities won’t be able to do,” Foote said. “We see these budget cuts as something that affects the whole New York school community. It’s important that the leadership that 321 can provide can steer other school communities to take action.”
Though parents at P.S. 321 may be able to raise more money than their counterparts in poorer communities, the school doesn’t receive any Title 1 funding — federal money earmarked for poor students’ schools. Title I money can’t be touched by the mayor’s budget cuts.
Funding Fight Looms
All schools are facing an uphill battle to maintain services. Next year’s planned cuts dwarf the current mid-year cuts, rising from $180 million to $325 million. The cuts may also impact a recent agreement between the city and the state to increase city school funding by $5.4 billion over the next five years. That agreement, spurred by a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, relied on the city increasing school funding $2.2 billion annually by 2010-2011.
“We can’t afford to spend more money than we have,” said Department of Education spokeswoman Debra Wexler in a statement. “We have to wait Albany finalizes the State budgets before making any final decisions, but we obviously will look closely at Central and school budgets to implement cuts with the smallest possible impact on our students and schools.”
In recent years, some funding already has been added to school budgets by making cuts from non-school Department of Education operations. In 2008, this funding was called the “Children’s First Supplemental” on the budget, and brought more than $232 million to the pre-cuts budget.
“No one likes budget cuts,” said Principal Janice Geary of Junior High School 259 in Dyker Heights. “But I really believe if you’re prudent and you’re careful, 1.75% truthfully — and I don’t want to belittle my colleagues — isn’t that hard to deal with.”
Geary added that she always supplements her budget by raising funds from private sources, politicians, and grant monies.
Leonie Haimson, executive director of “Class Size Matters,” a non-profit that promotes smaller class sizes and greater resources for schools, believes angry parents could persuade the city to rethink the cuts.
Plan of Action
“(Parents) will do anything they can to forestall these cuts and even worse cuts next year,” Haimson said. She also pointed out “there was an agreement by the state and the city that they would increase the funding by $5.4 billion over the next four years, but the cuts are really sort of negating that agreement.”
When de Blasio spoke at John Jay High School, he offered parents some hope. He said the cuts are not inevitable, as Bloomberg is presenting them to be.
“I am confident that with the active support of parents, teachers, and principals, we can fight these cuts,” de Blasio said later. “(We can) compel the mayor to recognize school funding as the priority it deserves to be.”
Foote, for one, is energized to fight on. She marched on February 14 and plans to do so again on March 19 when P.S. 321’s parents will join the teachers unions, education watchdog groups, and other parents from around the city to declare war on the cuts.
“I was really appalled that Klein would elect to take these budget cuts from schools — in the middle of the year,” said Foote. “I felt that in a way that was a breach of promise. To pull that out is like pulling a rug out from under the whole school community.”