Testimony

Testimony on the expense budget

Testimony of Randi Weingarten, UFT President, , before New York City Council Education Committee

Good afternoon Chairman Jackson and to all of you who serve on this distinguished committee. On behalf of the 200-thousand members of the United Federation of Teachers, I want to thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today.

Everyone here today is invested in our public schools, whose strength is vital to our communities. We are all stakeholders.

Every day, there are new headlines and new budget projections on the city, state and federal level. I have talked to more than a few people just this week who asked me to help make sense of it all in terms of where our school budgets stand.

There are probably a few people here in this room who aren’t all that worried about school budgets and the many programs that students participate in, now that a billion dollars in State Fiscal Stabilization Grants has been allocated for New York City public schools over the next two years.

There are also no doubt people here in the audience who believe the threat of 15,000 teacher layoffs has been averted.

Ladies and gentlemen — I am here today to say that we are not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.

The stimulus money, which the UFT and AFT helped secure, will help a great deal, but what it does not do is restore all the funding our schools stand to lose, or guarantee that layoffs won’t happen.

Even after that stimulus funding reaches us, the projected education budget deficit in New York City is in the range of $500 million. That means schools could see 8% to 12% cuts in their budgets, which would translate into serious reductions in services and programs.

Make no mistake — There is a lot of work ahead of us all.

These are complicated times, but my message here today is simple: Protect the classroom. Kids do not get a second chance.

I don’t have to tell any of you that our city, our state and our country are struggling. As the president of the American Federation of Teachers, I’m in touch with teachers from coast to coast, and I can tell you there is real fear out there. Those fears are well founded: in each of the last three months, more than 650-thousand jobs were lost.

Think about the New Yorkers you know who have lost theirs. Think of how many of them were struggling to get by even before that. These are our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends and family members. And many of them have school-age children.

We all know how important a quality education is to a child’s future. Imagine how important the stability of a safe, warm classroom is to children whose parents are wondering how they will pay their next month’s rent. Imagine how important after- school programs are to those families.

Strong schools are integral to our neighborhoods, and veritable lifelines to New Yorkers straining to survive this economic downturn.

Everyone here today needs to commit himself or herself to fighting for our schools and our classrooms. To make sure our schools prepare a generation of children for their future, but at the same time protect and nurture them in this painful time of despair.

BY THE NUMBERS

The gravity of our economic situation is lost on no one, especially many of you among the Council who have fought so hard for schools. It has been an uphill battle ever since the school system saw the first $180 million dollar cut in January 2008. We appreciate the leadership you have shown over the past year, especially your work last May and June to restore $145 million to schools, which was nothing short of monumental.

Since that victory, however, education has seen another $181 million in City tax levy cuts in this school year, and a projected $691 million loss for next year. Of the $181 million cut this year, the schools themselves absorbed $103 million. While most of the cuts were supposedly taken from OTPS, or “other than personnel services”, we did see some schools cut back on teacher positions, enrichment and extended day programs, sports, extracurricular activities, class trips and after-school tutoring. For example, at PS 94 in District 15 Brooklyn, six F-status teachers are being let go this week. They have been working as intervention teachers for students scoring 1’s and 2’s on their math and ELA exams, but the school has exhausted its funding for substitute teachers and had to free up money for the rest of the year. At the Academy of Urban Planning, also in Brooklyn, after school tutoring and most trips have been cancelled. The one year suspension program in District 79 is struggling to give students intensive counseling so they can return to their schools. Furthermore, some of the cuts not counted against school budgets will ultimately affect students anyway, including the elimination of summer school except where mandated, as well as cuts in custodial services and repairs.

As I said earlier, New York City schools still face an additional $500 million in cuts between the city and state budgets. Cuts of that magnitude will go well beyond canceling the class play or class trip. We are talking about the very real possibility of significant cutbacks to core programs and services.

So what does that mean? Since the DoE is leaving decisions to the principals, and since there is very little leeway in school budgets, the outlook will differ from school to school. Any way you look at it, though, the outlook is not good.

Increased class size is a given. We learned last month that New York City failed to achieve its state-mandated class-size targets for two years in a row, despite an infusion of funds under the State’s Contract for Excellence program. In fact, in 2008, class sizes in the city increased at all levels, for the first time in 10 years. Does anyone here think that this troubling trend won’t continue if we see major budget cuts?

The elimination of arts and honors programs is also a given. Canceling after-school activities will be widespread. Cuts in positions such as guidance counselors will be widespread as well. Corners are already being cut in special education services. Many maintenance projects and orders for computers and other classroom materials will be put on hold. Important resources such as Teacher Centers and Teachers Choice, both of which are integral to our schools, are on the chopping block. The loss of teacher center funding would, in particular, have a devastating impact on the quality of our workforce.

We also can’t be certain that layoffs won’t happen as we continue to receive pessimistic reports on the state of the economy.

We all need to be mindful of the path taken during the mid-1970’s, when our schools were hit with thousands of layoffs and major budget cuts. It took us decades to recover from that failed strategy, and we cannot let that happen again.

Education funding cuts of the magnitude being proposed in the January plan would have a lasting impact on the quality of education that our students receive and, consequently, on tomorrow’s workforce. We cannot have a vibrant, strong economy without well-educated citizens. That’s why continued investment, even in this difficult time, is critical.

GETTING TO WHERE WE NEED TO BE

A few weeks ago, tens of thousands of New Yorkers came together for a rally right here next to City Hall. Our message was two-fold: 1) to urge our local and state elected representatives to take steps that ensure the federal stimulus funding is spent correctly and wisely, and 2) to push for a fair share progressive income tax on the highest earning New Yorkers.

The federal stimulus, the progressive state income tax and smart spending decisions represent the three prongs of the tripartite approach that we at the UFT have been advocating since October.

When I say smart spending decisions, I’m referring to more than $530 million that the Department of Education could save through a retirement incentive and administrative cost savings.

Retirement incentives can be very effective at reducing salary expenses and helping to avoid layoffs. Just last week, the Postal Service announced it would offer a retirement incentive to 150-thousand of its employees in hopes of doing just that. We urge the DoE and the City to follow their lead.

A retirement incentive similar to those implemented by NYC in 1990’s could save approximately $300 million, but it would need to be pursued immediately to give schools and the central DoE time to make the necessary adjustments and ensure schools and classrooms are properly staffed for the fall. We have a salary structure that is different than most – entry salaries are less than half than the maximum reached before retirement. For every retiree, we could hire two teachers. We could in many places reduce cost burdens while at the same time lower class sizes. There are approximately 25-thousand UFT members in TRS that could be offered an incentive.

In conjunction with a retirement incentive, the DoE should also commit to ensuring that all personnel currently on the payroll are properly utilized before hiring is done from outside the system. There are currently more than 1,100 qualified teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool due to their programs or schools being downsized or closed. While an agreement is in place to give principals an incentive to hire these people, we learned in one of the daily newspapers last week that outside hiring is still taking place. We don’t oppose hiring from outside the system, but a temporary hold on that hiring, except of course in mandated or shortage areas, should be put in place until all ATRS are placed. Recruitment of new teachers from outside the system, including the $5 million a year effort by the New Teacher Project, should be halted for now.

There is also approximately $225 million of unrealized administrative cost savings at Tweed that could be made without directly affecting classrooms. These include reviewing consultants and contractor arrangements, including an independent review of all DOE contracts and proposed investments in new information technology projects; reforming the DOE’s testing and accountability initiatives by replacing the costly and duplicative ARIS system that many principals and teachers have not been able to use due to lack of time and training, as well as continued glitches; downsizing the offices of Accountability and Public Relations, suspending the school bonus program; and putting a moratorium on new small school creation.

I want to add to all this that we believe the new reorganization of school supports currently underway for a third of NYC public schools is an unnecessary administrative change at this time, since the additional cost is uncertain. We already know that the headcount at Tweed has grown by close to 100 people between January and November 2008. Now this latest reorganization, which is based around expanding the Children First Network to 500 schools, looks to add even more administrative costs to the system. Under CFN, groups of 20 or so schools are put into groups, and each of those groups has 13 dedicated staff members. That will require hiring new staff and pulling staff from DoE offices from around the city. At a time when funding for classrooms is in danger, these types of wholesale reorganizations should not be the priority.

It is also worth noting, as we talk about class size increases and classroom cuts, that we have some high-needs districts in desperate need of new seats to alleviate overcrowding. It’s unfortunate that the DoE chose to commit $210 million for the construction of new buildings for charter schools, but chose not to locate them in districts with the greatest need for new seats.

We at the UFT also have some additional thoughts on how to maximize other components of the stimulus package. For example, we want to develop a grant plan that would harness a portion of New York State’s $174 million in Workforce Investment Act funding for Career and Technical Education training programs, Adult education programs and programs that benefit overage and under-credited at-risk youth. We envision pulling together a broad spectrum of partners, such as the Workforce Investment Board, the Department of Education, the DYCD, colleges and others. Boosting these programs at this difficult time would be a smart investment and help move the economy and the nation’s infrastructure forward.

We also strongly believe that the federal stimulus offers a unique opportunity to provide intensive supports and wraparound services to struggling schools, in hopes of turning them around, similar to the former Chancellor’s District. Part of this approach could include bringing community services and activities into the school model. By working with municipalities, social service agencies, community organizations and others, you can build stronger school communities.

FAIR STUDENT FUNDING

Another strategy that must be considered is the revisiting of the Fair Student Funding (FSF) formulas, which if left intact has the potential to wreak havoc on an already complicated school budgeting process.

As many of you know, two years ago, the DoE created a new system — Fair Student Funding (FSF) – to change the way schools are funded. FSF computes different dollar amounts for different types of students based on grade level and need. Because FSF disregards actual teacher salary levels for funding purposes, the stated goal for this new per-pupil funding system was to create more funding equity among schools and to re-distribute experienced teachers.

In late spring 2007, when the per-student dollar amounts were unveiled, it became clear that they were pegged so low that half the schools in the system — generally those with higher teacher salaries — would be receiving insufficient funds in 2007-08 to cover the salaries of the current staff. At the time, the UFT was able to prevent budget cuts to these schools by securing an agreement with the DOE to hold schools harmless from any cuts due to the imposition of FSF for two years. Those two years are now up.

Consider this: There are 654 schools that face FSF budget cuts held in abeyance since 2007. By our own research, we believe at a minimum, $233.5 million in FSF cuts are possible. I say at a minimum, because the FSF per-pupil funding level was calibrated according to the projected systemwide average teacher salary level for last school year, and has not yet been adjusted to reflect schools’ current average salary levels, student registers, and changes in types of students.

By our calculations, 140 schools are looking at cuts under $100 thousand, but 361 can expect cuts of between $100 and $500 thousand, and an additional 153 could lose more than $500 thousand. Any many of these schools are high-need and have poverty levels that qualify them for Title I.

CONCLUSION

We don’t know yet what the state budget will look like or whether we will succeed in getting a progressive income tax, but we do know that tax revenues are way down and projected deficits are only getting bigger. None of us can ignore the severity of the situation.

We also don’t know exactly how the stimulus dollars will be channeled to our schools, but we do know that if they are not used wisely, on direct services for children, our kids could be left in just as deep a hole as ever. The UFT embraces President Obama’s calls for shared responsibility and transparency, and I implore the Department of Education to follow the President’s lead. President Obama said the stimulus finding “cannot and will not be an excuse for waste and abuse,” and made it clear that plans to spend the stimulus must be based on the merits of preserving and creating jobs, and helping reverse the economic downturn. We applaud him on that front. Teachers want to make a difference in kids’ lives, and they appreciate a president who shares that goal and will spend his political capital to provide the resources to make it happen.

More than anything else, I am here today to argue that of all the cutbacks being considered across city services, none will be as harmful as cuts that affect our children's education. We need to focus on preparing our kids for an economy that demands ever-increasing levels of knowledge, skill and adaptability. Effective workforce development is a must if we as a city are to move forward.

It really is about protecting the classroom.

The UFT is committed to working with the Mayor and the City Council in confronting the challenges ahead. We all need to work together towards finding solutions and making smart choices that protect children in classrooms from major cuts.

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