New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein told lawmakers last week that if the 2010-2011 Executive Budget is not amended, the city would be forced to cut teachers from public schools, compromising the education of the city's schoolchildren.
Klein said the governor's proposed plan would cut $600 million from the city's education budget, which could potentially result in the loss of 8,500 city teaching positions come September.
"If the budget is implemented as proposed, you can be sure that city students will feel the pain of these cuts in the high-quality teachers from their classrooms," warned Klein.
The chancellor introduced several proposals he said would ease the financial burden on schools. His plan called for "smart savings, ensuring access to every dollar and flexibility over available funding."
One of Klein's proposed reforms is to the "last in, first out" policy, a rule that says the last teachers to be hired in a district, must be the ones laid off first. He said the seniority policy can result in the loss of effective teachers saying, "Clearly the only thing worse than having to lay off teachers would be laying off great teachers instead of failing one."
Another of Klein's suggestions is a change to the Absent Teacher Reserve Pool, a process allowing tenured teachers to continue to be paid even when not teaching due to too many teachers in a district.
Klein said a change in the process of firing teachers is also necessary to get rid of temporary reassignment centers or "rubber rooms." Temporary reassignment centers are used to place teachers who have been accused of misconduct such as molestation or abuse. Tenured teachers keep their full pay without needing to teach in such situations.
According to Klein, the "rubber room" process is supposed to last up to 60 days before it is decided if a teacher is guilty or innocent of any accusations or charges, but the process can last years. He also said many teachers within the Absent Teacher Reserve Pool find new jobs quickly, but some remain in the pool without looking for employment, so they can collect money without having to work at a cost of $110 million to taxpayers.
"These are taxpayer dollars that could otherwise pay the salaries of 370 additional teachers, directly benefiting our students and schools," said Klein.
New York State United Teachers Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta later disagreed with Klein, saying most teachers wait in a "rubber room" for about six months, either deciding to leave themselves or after reaching an agreement with school officials.
Klein also urged lawmakers to lift the state's cap on charter schools, saying it is needed to ensure the state, if it does not get awarded funds in the first round of federal Race to the Top education funding, will have a successful application for the second round. He said demand for seats in the city's existing charter schools far outpaces available supply, with more than 35,000 children on charter school waitlists.
The chancellor also said he wanted to stop the practice of reimbursing the parents of special needs students who drive their children to school when they could be riding the bus. He said it is possible to add two or three additional students to special education classrooms to save money, as well as place a cap on the amount of special education students taken on by a school and the amount of services, such as speech and physical therapy, that schools provide.
"I want to be clear, I am not talking about diminishing the quality of services that our students need. Rather, I'm calling for enhanced flexibility to make decisions that impact our classrooms," said Klein.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Suzi Oppenheimer, D-Mamaroneck, questioned Klein, asking "if there are so many students waitlisted for charter schools, why have more public schools not been converted into charters?"
Although the charter school cap is now at 200, any public school can be converted into a charter without counting toward the cap.
The chancellor said 16 schools have been converted so far and he is hoping 120 will be converted by 2011. He said due to economic issues, traditional schools are converted more slowly than they would like, but they are opening fast considering the high level of quality they are trying to ensure the schools have.
"It's easy to open a charter school," said Klein, "but hard to open a quality charter school."
Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine Nolan, D-Queens, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Carl Kruger, D-Brooklyn, both criticized Klein and the job he is doing.
Kruger said the chancellor treats parents and lawmakers as annoyances and continues to ignore their concerns.
"You come to use for money, but you don't come to use for direction," said Kruger. The senator also expressed frustration that he and other lawmakers are unable to answer constituents' questions about their children's education because they are not kept in the loop.
Nolan asked why there are still close to 400 trailers in the city being used as temporary classrooms when the city has been given money to build or find more rooms. "Where is the taskforce and initiative? We are not feeling any progress," said Nolan.
Kruger called Klein's term "nine years of torture, nine years of acrimony, nine years of nail biting and hand twisting," with Nolan's agreement.
Klein said he knows the city needs to create more classrooms but that it "doesn't come by magic."
Klein told lawmakers the governor's budget would lead to a $600 million cut to city schools along with another $600 million lost due to required unfunded mandates, putting the city in debt by $1.2 billion in the coming school year.
Sen. Craig Johnson, D-Port Washington, told state Education Commissioner David Steiner earlier in the hearing that the number of state mandates imposed on schools represents a failure of the state Education Department. Steiner said he would post the full list of state and federal education mandates on his department's Web site with a ballpark number of what each costs.
So that lawmakers can make an informed decision on whether the Executive Budget should be amended to provide more support for New York City schools, Kruger asked Klein to release documentation showing where city school funding has been going and how the system runs.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew also spoke out against the education budget cuts but said, like last year, they would continue to work with lawmakers to protect education. "We owe it to the city's children," the union leader said.
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