To make up for an unexpected budget shortfall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is bringing city agencies under the knife—and for the second year in a row, the Department of Education will not be spared from midyear cuts.

On Friday, Bloomberg announced that the city’s agencies would have to collectively cut $2 billion, and the department’s share in the burden would amount to 1.6 percent of its own budget this year, and 4 percent next year.

Last fall, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the central offices would take the brunt of midyear cuts, but he skirted the issue of the city’s budget shortfall, which numbered in the billions and portended more cuts for 2012. This year, the schools budget was held flat—a fact that was hailed as an improvement by city officials and councilmembers, but still felt like a cut to many educators, who saw the costs of supplies, special education services, and teacher salaries continue to rise.

As we reported last year, midyear budget cuts like the ones being prepared for now are especially disruptive to schools because most expenses are fixed for the whole year. That means that only certain costs, such as after-school programs or tutoring, can go on the chopping block. And four straight years of budget cuts have already left class sizes on the rise and principals struggling to make ends meet.

“If we’ve got to cut, we’re going to be very tight, midyear, which would be a shame,” one principal who asked not to be identified said this afternoon.

Department officials have declined to say what areas are likely to see cuts this fall once the department submits its budget outline, due Oct. 4, to the Office of Management and Budget. That could mean individual schools are less likely to receive the same good news they heard last year, when Walcott quickly announced that midyear cuts would only hit the central offices shortly after Bloomberg first announced them.

Some schools were able to avoid cutting teachers in previous years by saving money in a rainy-day fund. But because city officials said they did not expect to impose more cuts after they set this fiscal year’s budget, the potential new cuts would catch principals off guard.

If some of this year’s cuts come out of the schools’ budgets, as they did in 2010, it could mean class sizes will rise as schools remove teaching positions. It could also mean cuts to librarians, arts and music teachers, and other specialized positions that are often among the first to go when schools make cuts.

“The first place people are going to look to cut will be what you have to pay for in addition to your teacher salaries,” for example tutoring sessions on Saturday mornings before exams, and replacement computer equipment, a Brooklyn high school principal said. “You always look to not have personnel be the issue.”

“It’s always a guessing game,” the principal said. “This year we spent our money on lowering class size in our 9th and 10th grade classes, which basically involves hiring additional people. That put more pressure on our upper grade classes. We are hoping to
ameliorate some of those pressures by hiring another teacher midyear if budget allows, but I’m certain that if we’re having budget cuts we won’t be able to.”

“Sometimes people retire midyear, so schools will look to see if they can cover those classes without hiring another person,” the principal added. “The only way to do that is to increase class sizes. That’s how we saved money in past years, but that’s exactly what we were hoping to avoid this year.”

In 2008, tasked with cutting $180 million mid-year, department officials took from school budgets, cut 475 administrative positions centrally, and eliminated positions for social workers and other service providers. In 2009, when the city cut $405 million from the department’s budget, schools had to make deep cuts to extracurricular activities and professional development programming, and in some cases, reduce their teaching force. The following year, Bloomberg asked the department to begin making more cuts in preparation for the budget shortfall projected for the 2012 fiscal year. That announcement resulted in schools carving out 1 percent of their budgets, a total of $79 million, in January 2010.

A department administrator who helmed a large high school through the years of budget cuts said school leaders making cuts once the school year is underway must consider what changes would affect students the least.

The administrator, who also did not want to be identified, said in past years she considered cutting school aids, skimping on new computers, and eliminating extra tasks that would require the school to pay teachers “per session” overtime fees. For some school leaders, those tasks could include out of class tutoring for students struggling to pass classes or prepare for state tests, and data analysis for those trying to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum.