Staring down a projected $7.4 billion gap in tax revenues as the coronavirus ravages New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday proposed a budget with roughly $827 million in cost saving measures to the education department through next fiscal year.
Many of the proposed cuts will directly hit the day-to-day functioning of schools — with a hiring freeze, reductions in counseling, and operating expense dips — raising questions about whether schools will have all the tools they need to help students catch up after months of lost in-person instruction.
Buildings will remain closed for the rest of the school year, de Blasio has said. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who insists that school closures are his decision and must be coordinated with other states, extended statewide school and non-essential business closures from April 29 to at least May 15.
On Thursday, the mayor said his nearly $90 billion spending plan for the entire city is primarily focused on boosting health, safety, food, and shelter resources. Overall cuts, which will eat away at almost 4% of the total city budget, still “pale in comparison to the challenges ahead,” de Blasio told reporters.
“The executive budget I’m presenting today was built for this moment in history, in a moment unlike any other, literally,” the mayor said.
Under de Blasio’s proposal, cuts and savings would shrink the education department’s budget by 3% next fiscal year, compared to this fiscal year, which ends June 30. If the mayor’s proposal is approved, it would be the first time since 2013 that the city cuts overall education spending.
Yet, as economic projections become increasingly dire, it is possible that even deeper reductions will be made.
The education department will freeze hiring, yielding more than $100 million in savings through next year, according to budget documents. The aim is to fill openings with educators from the controversial Absent Teacher Reserve. This pool of educators act as roving substitutes but lack permanent positions because of disciplinary issues, or because their schools were closed for poor performance or under enrollment.
Some cuts had already been announced, including $100 million slashed directly from school budgets, $43 million from slowing the expansion of pre-K for 3-year-olds, and $49 million eliminated from pausing programs that help students get to college and provide individual counseling for middle school students.
Mark Cannizzaro, president of the union that represents school administrators, blasted the mayor’s move to cut school budgets. He noted that schools already receive about $700 million less than they are owed under the city’s own formula.
“There are plenty of other places that we should be looking first,” Cannizzaro said. “That’s a significant amount of money, especially for some schools, and it’s going to be difficult to absorb.”
Other reductions are projected from not having to operate school buildings, which have been shut down since March 16. That includes $100 million in savings in overtime, training, and materials; $40 million from running programs within schools; more than $15 million in costs saved from art supplies; and more.
Principals were told this week they could only spend money on coronavirus-related expenses and extra teacher pay would be limited to mandated services, such as those for students with disabilities or those learning English.
The mayor is also wiping out some programs entirely, including an effort to spur collaboration between district and charter schools, which will save the city about $4.4 million each year. The department is also delaying its rollout of air conditioning for every city school, which was promised by 2021.
The fate of summer school remains unknown. De Blasio said it’s too early to say whether summer school will be canceled, though the education department is creating “all sorts of scenarios,” including online summer learning.
City Council will spend the next couple of months negotiating with the mayor on a final budget, which is finalized in June. Some elected leaders have already raised concerns about proposed education cuts, as well as the city’s decision to eliminate youth employment programs this summer.
Mark Treyger, chair of the council’s education committee, acknowledged that some education cuts may be necessary, but said they should avoid reductions to school budgets.
“I believe that there is enough fat in the city budget that can be cut that does not directly impact the classroom,” he said. “I’m going to give the mayor hell.”
Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, said the proposed budget cuts would likely worsen existing inequities and exacerbate the challenges schools and students are now facing.
“New York City students will need additional academic and social-emotional support to make up for the months of instructional time that have been lost to the pandemic and address the impact of isolation, fear, and loss,” she said in a statement.
“We need our federal, state, and city elected officials to work together to ensure our schools have the resources they need so that the current crisis does not have lifelong consequences for a generation of children.”