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City Council Grills Schools Chancellor at Hearing

October 13, 2011
By Marc Bussanich
About 672 Local 372 school aids and parent coordinators did not have a job to go to on Tuesday. Instead, some of them attended a City Council Oversight Hearing to hear directly from Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott explain why the job cuts were necessary.

Walcott reaffirmed the Department of Education’s (DOE) position that it clearly indicated a need to reduce 1,000 non-pedagogical positions, while Local 372 President’s Santos Crespo said he didn’t know about possible layoffs until a meeting with Deputy Chancellor David Wiener right at the end the school year last June, and DC 37 President Lillian Roberts told the council that the administration’s decision to authorize the cuts was a “political hit” because the union didn’t want to use monies from a union controlled health fund to avert the layoffs.

The hearing was heated at times as Committee on Finance Chair, Domenic Recchia, asked Walcott “Why didn’t you inform the council about school aid layoffs”? so that the Council could have had time to find additional monies to stave off the cuts.

Walcott, who said that “the layoffs weigh on him,” shot back, “I indicated on the steps of City Hall back in June when an agreement was reached with the teachers that non-teaching positions were at risk.”  

Then Recchia noted there was no mention of layoffs in the Executive Budget, but Walcott responded, “That was before the budget [of $65.7 billion] adoption in June.”

Although teacher layoffs were averted, Walcott said that reduced federal and state funding for schools compelled the DOE to extract additional cost savings. “We informed principals that schools’ budgets would still decline by about 2.4 percent,” and that DOE “had to look for ways to reduce spending while limiting the impact on our classrooms.”

Walcott mentioned that by virtue of the DOE being the city’s largest agency, it is inevitable that the city will seek cuts from the agency in order to balance the budget.   

Walcott also said that 70 percent of a school’s budget is personnel expenses, thereby narrowing the choices for principals to make staff cuts. While Walcott claimed that DOE does not tell principals who to target for layoffs, the agency does provide “parameters” and “guidelines” to help principals make staffing cuts. In response to reports that DOE signaled out Local 372 for layoffs, Walcott said, “I wouldn’t target any one group because of political strain or friction.”
Recchia directly asked the DOE officials if they had sent any letters to principals instructing them to specifically lay off school aids. DOE’s Chief Financial Officer, Veronica Conforme, hesitated before answering “No.”

Recchia then produced a Power Point presentation purportedly given to the principals by DOE that indicated principals can cut school aids. Walcott quickly responded that, again, the DOE “provides guidelines and tips” to help principals with their staffing decisions.

Crespo and DC 37’s Roberts appeared before the council and sharply contested the idea that principals alone were responsible for making staffing cuts. They feel the principals were pressured by DOE to lay off school aids.

When asked by Committee on Education Chair, Robert Jackson, why they felt the layoffs were a political hit against their union, Crespo and Roberts noted how DOE did not appear for scheduled meetings with Local 372 representatives.

“I met Dave Wiener at the end of June expecting to discuss next year’s school needs when he dropped the idea of layoffs and then implied if I could somehow persuade the Municipal Labor Committee to tap the health fund to pay for salaries in order to avert layoffs,” said Crespo.  
When Crespo told Wiener that he couldn’t do that, especially as the majority of unions on the committee rejected the idea of using money from the fund for fear DOE would still cut the positions. Soon after, DOE refused to consider two union proposals to save jobs, noted Crespo.

As if the loss of 672 union jobs isn’t bad enough, Walcott mentioned that the Office of Management and Budget “has already directed us to find additional savings in FY12 budget [$186 million] and plan for cuts to the FY13 budget [$567 million].”

Walcott said he and his staff will do their best to minimize the impact to classrooms, but there’s no guarantee that schools “won’t be touched.”

Lillian Roberts requested the City Council to reinstate the workers, but all the council could say was that they are fighting hard to restore the 672 jobs, but that there is no mechanism to force DOE to rescind the directive.   

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