NY Budget article 3/26/02

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March 26, 2002

Educators Offer Dire Warnings of School Budget Cuts' Effects

By ABBY GOODNOUGH The school district covering Washington Heights, facing an $8.4 million cut, may have to drastically scale back remedial programs for newly arrived immigrant children and their parents and a Saturday program for students who want to earn high school credit.

In Queens, advanced placement courses are on the chopping block as high schools prepare for a $21 million cut. The schools may also lose guidance counselors, teacher trainers and attendance teachers, who round up truants. New furniture for the borough's badly overcrowded high school classrooms is out of the question, and most of the after-school classes that survived last fall's budget cuts will now be decimated.

So went the exceedingly bleak testimony of school district superintendents yesterday at a City Council hearing on the Board of Education's proposed budget. Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy made the situation sound even grimmer by predicting that the board's budget deficit which he said was at least $686 million would "affect every level of the school system more profoundly than any round of budget cuts in recent memory."

In February, when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg first announced his plan to cut $354 million, about 3 percent, from the school system's $11.5 billion budget, Mr. Levy said he would try to protect classrooms from the cuts while slashing administration as much as possible. But this month, Mr. Bloomberg asked the school system to come up with an additional $115 million in possible cuts. Mr. Levy said the loss of city funds, combined with a $93 million cut in state aid and $290 million in cuts that the school system weathered last fall, would "surely" harm classroom instruction.

Last week, Mr. Levy asked school district superintendents to find ways to cut their budgets by a total of $305 million about $300 a student. Yesterday, Mr. Levy predicted that even if the state and city end up restoring some of their proposed cuts to the school system, schools will still have to absorb up to $190 million in lost financing.

Responding to reporters' questions after his testimony before the Council's Education Committee, Mr. Levy said he believed that the debate over whether the mayor should control the school system a change that Mr. Bloomberg has constantly and vigorously pushed for in recent months was distracting the public from the much more urgent matter of impending budget cuts.

"The budget is going to have a devastating effect on the schools," Mr. Levy said. "We can't get away from that by putting our heads in the sand and talking about who should be in charge."

Mr. Levy let it be known earlier this month that he might cut $100 million from the city's $176 million summer school program, eliminating it for all but the very lowest-performing students. Last week, while Mr. Levy was vacationing, Board of Education members discussed the possibility of scrapping the program altogether, saying they were not convinced it was working.

But yesterday, Mr. Levy said he could not allow a return to the system's former practice of promoting students to the next grade despite dismal academic performance.

Mr. Levy, whose contract is up in June and whose future lies in the hands of Mr. Bloomberg, was careful yesterday not to swat overtly at the mayor, who has lately attacked the Board of Education as wasteful and incompetent. But he did indirectly challenge Mr. Bloomberg's recent assertion that the board spends only half its budget on instruction, saying: "Newspaper reports that only 50 percent of expendit

-- Danielle Fenton (parentscentral@aol.com), March 26, 2002


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