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Mayor uses 'smoke and mirrors' to rationalize layoffs

New revenues, strong economy do not shake Bloomberg's pursuit of pink slips

Despite reporting a multi-billion-dollar city budget surplus that continues to grow, Mayor Bloomberg refused to reconsider his plan to lay off 4,278 teachers — 5 percent of the teaching force — when he presented his executive budget on May 6.

On a day when monthly job gains topped all expectations and the stock market rose, the mayor said teachers will see pink slips “certainly this year.” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott acknowledged that class sizes, which have already reached levels not seen since the 1970s, would grow by an average of two students as a consequence.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the mayor was obscuring the truth that he has, in fact, many other budget choices short of layoffs. “Same smoke, same mirrors, same attempt to blame others for his decision to lay off thousands of teachers, despite increased state aid, hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues and a surplus that has grown to more than $3.2 billion,” Mulgrew said in an angry response to the mayor’s presentation.

In an impressive display of unity and grassroots outrage, several thousand UFT members, parents and students came out on May 5 at four simultaneous rallies across the city to say no to teacher layoffs and child care cuts. The rallies were modeled after an April 14 rally in Queens that drew nearly 1,000 protesters.

At the union’s annual Spring Education Conference on May 7, Mulgrew promised a Wisconsin-style protest over the teacher cuts.

The mayor’s budget proposal must be approved by the City Council, and some Council members have been vocal in opposing the teacher layoffs.

Councilman James Vacca reminded protestors at the May 5 rally in the Bronx of the disastrous consequences of layoffs in the 1970s.

“We cannot have teacher layoffs again, and we are going to fight to keep teachers in the classroom where they belong,” Vacca said.

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito called layoffs “unacceptable.”

“We continue to ask the least among us to bear the brunt,” she told The New York Times. “I’m really concerned.”

At the Spring Education Conference, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said, “We will do everything in our power to prevent these layoffs from happening.”

The city has calculated that it will save $270 million as a result of the teacher layoffs. The union and other critics have put alternative ways to cover that cost on the table, including extending the millionaire’s tax, ending bank subsidies and closing tax loopholes for hedge funds and private equity firms.

The city budget must by law be balanced and approved by July 1.

Thanks to relentless campaigning by the UFT, the City Council and early childhood advocates, the mayor retreated from his initial proposal to eliminate 16,500 child care slots, restoring $40 million of the $91 million in child care funding that he intended to cut.

While the mayor claimed that no children would lose their subsidized care, the UFT, Council members and child care advocates asked how that would be accomplished with less than half of the funding.

“The $51 million deficit still puts thousands of children in New York City at risk,” said Tammie Miller, the chair of the UFT Family Child Care Providers Chapter.

In his presentation, Bloomberg blamed shortfalls in expected state education dollars and a reduction in federal education aid for the layoffs. He flatly ruled out any tax increases even as critics assailed him for supporting tax breaks for millionaires.

In addition to the threatened layoffs, the mayor proposes to eliminate an additional 2,000 teacher jobs through attrition. In total, the teaching force would be down more than 6,000 positions when school begins next fall, even as student enrollment increases.

Asked by reporters if he would make teacher jobs a top priority as the budget moves to its final adoption by July 1, Bloomberg responded, “There are lots of No. 1 priorities.” Even if the state were to come through with additional aid, he hedged that he was “not sure what we’d do with it.”

The mayor’s austerity budget comes at a time when city tax revenue is coming in at a higher-than-expected pace. Since the previous city budget was adopted last spring, the city has benefited from more than $1 billion in additional tax revenue in the current fiscal year and $1.25 billion in the next. Just since February, the city has received an additional $304 million in revenues.

Money from banking taxes has increased as Wall Street has rebounded. Personal income taxes are about 9 percent higher so far this fiscal year compared with the previous year, according to the Independent Budget Office. Personal income tax is forecast by the city to increase 11.1 percent this year and another 7.3 percent next year.

“We have bounced back strongly,” Bloomberg said.

The mayor has stuck to the same number of planned layoffs even though the state came through with more than $200 million in additional education aid since February and the city has $100 million of new federal aid to support medical services in special education.

Suggesting his ulterior motives for pressing layoffs regardless of the shifting budget reality, Bloomberg repeatedly called for changes to the seniority layoff provisions.

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