Bloomberg’s Opening Gambit on Need To Cut Teaching Headcount Opens a Four-Month Struggle — or More

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The New York Sun

 The city budget proposed yesterday is $65.6 billion dollars. That is a $300 million reduction from the current year, almost 0.5% of the total budget, and represents a serious effort to control costs.

The most striking part of this year’s budget, covering fiscal year 2012 is the projected reduction in the Department of Education staff by 6,166 teachers. Attrition will account for 1,500 vacancies, leaving 4,666 layoffs are on the table.

This is the opening gambit in what will be a four-month struggle. The city budget is adopted each year by the City Council and the mayor in June, and a series of public hearings will be held this spring. It is highly unlikely that the final result of the process will be the dismissal of 4,666 teachers laid off, but we believe it is certain that the teaching force in September 2011 will be somewhat smaller than it is today.

The scope of the proposed layoffs suggest that the mayor reduced the city’s education budget. In fact, he did not do that. He said that the city will spend $2.2 billion more on education next year than it has this year. He attributed the shortfall to a cut of $800 million in Federal funds and the loss of $1.1 billion dollars in state aid. Governor Cuomo disputes the size of the cut, saying that part of the state reduction came a year ago, during the Paterson administration. But whenever the reduction came, the money is not in the school budget for FY 2012.

Mayor Bloomberg spoke knowledgeably for more than an hour in the Blue Room, since the former site of budget presentations, the old Board of Estimate chamber in the northwest sector of the second floor of City Hall, was transformed nine years ago into the bullpen, a management technique used by the mayor at his eponymous corporation. The mayor used a body mike, an innovation of the Giuliani administration, which enables the speaker to walk from the rostrum to the PowerPoint presentation.

Years ago, when budget charts were first introduced, OMB staff scampered to the dais to display and then remove them. Technology has advanced, so the press of a button now introduces a new green and white chart. The mayor’s speech was carried live on NY1, and streamed on the mayor’s website. The streamed version, however, is much smaller than the TV monitor.

Mr. Bloomberg’s speech displayed his mastery of financial issues facing the city, and his awareness of its difficult financial situation, caused by the combination of the recession, increasing demand for services, loss of control over Medicaid costs, and higher mandatory costs such as pensions and debt service. He said that was the reason that he sought a third term.

Newspaper accounts of the budget presentation varied sharply. The Daily News had a huge headline on page one, “PAIN IN THE AX. Bloomy Sees Red, Whacks Billions From City Budget.” Charts on pages 4 and 5 specified the reductions.

The Times took quite a different view on the budget. Its page one headline was “BUSINESS TAXES BUOY OUTLOOK IN CITY BUDGET.” Javier Hernandez’ lede:

“Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in unveiling his budget proposal on Thursday, summed up New York City’s financial health with a phrase scarcely heard in the halls of government these days: ‘It’s good news.’”

The New Yorker magazine used to run items like this one under the caption: “Which paper do you read?”

The report that tax revenues were $2 billion higher than previously estimated alleviated the sense of immediate crisis to some extent. It also cast doubt on the accuracy of all economic forecasts, even though the revenue estimates proved to be conservative.

There is speculation that the issue of teacher layoffs is linked to the mayor’s attempt to change the last in, first out law in New York State. Under that law, seniority dictates that the newest, usually younger teachers, are the first to be laid off. The parties involved all deny any linkage, but that is the way negotiations, if any, are conducted. Besides, it is probably true that there is no linkage now, but who knows what will happen down the road?

The law that teachers must be laid off in reverse order of seniority is widely regarded as an impediment to quality education. President Obama and Secretary Duncan know this, as does anyone who is concerned with student outcomes rather than lifetime jobs for people, some of whom long ago lost their ability or willingness to communicate. On the other hand, LIFO protects teachers from arbitrary actions by political, corrupt, or simply stupid supervisors.

I know from first-hand experience —  as a kid — in New York City public schools that some teachers were wonderful; I still remember their names today. A handful were terrible, and most were all right. One of the best, Dr. Julius H. Hlavaty, first chairman of the math department at Bronx Science, was fired for not answering questions about his membership in the Communist Party. He was ordered reinstated with back pay by the courts. 

Mildred Waltzer, who at the time taught at P.S. 152-M, on Nagle Avenue, was a wonderful woman who cared deeply about her students. She taught an ungraded class called O.A. (open air), which would now be considered special education. She later became a principal in East Harlem. She wanted to adopt me, but fortunately my parents resisted her kind offer.

One of the worst, A.A., taught in Junior High School 52-M, appropriately on Academy Street. She was perpetually annoyed, although we had no idea why. One day, another teacher in the school, a Mrs. Good, died. The next morning, A.A. told her class, 8B-R, which included me: “Do you know why Mrs. Good died? It was because she was too good. I won’t make that mistake.” I can’t say she frightened me (I was 11), but the fact that I remember what she said so many years later indicates that she did make a strong impression. She also rubbed her nose a lot, whether the kids saw or not. There was an art teacher, G., who was so fat she couldn’t fit down the aisles between the children’s desks. When she tried, the bad kids tried to poke her with their rulers. I felt sorry for her.

In a way teacher quality didn’t matter that much because the smart kids knew the material anyway, but there were others who did rely on the teachers for information and instruction. Other teachers at 52, in math and history, were very good. One science teacher spent most of the class time fooling around with developed 13-year-old girls, who he brought to the front of the room to sit by him.

At Bronx Science the teachers were generally better. Some of the science teachers had Ph.D. degrees, but they were unable to get jobs in science because of the Great Depression and because they were Jews. Things were really different many years ago, which young people often have no idea of, although they do know a lot about computers, video games, cell phones and other devices. Each generation masters different skills.

The purpose of this reminiscence is to make the point that teachers vary widely in ability, dedication and mental health. If thousands must be laid off, the city should be able to get rid of the worst ones, regardless of seniority. It is really bad for pupils to be stuck with an incompetent or hostile teacher, especially if they rely on him or her to teach them English, or how to read. After a number of years, some teachers get sick and tired of other people’s children, while others don’t know how to control a classroom.

One important factor is that if the teacher tosses the child out of class for disruptive behavior, the principal should usually back up the teacher and not return the child right away. That is seen as a reward for misbehavior, and weakens whatever authority the teacher had over the child.

School can be a wonderful place for instruction and socialization. It can also utterly fail to achieve those goals. Empowering principals and teachers is important, and school officials should not be intimidated by hostile and belligerent parents. On the other hand, sometimes the parents are right, and principals should have the judgment to make decisions on the merits, not simply on the basis of politics or threats.

I have serious doubts that public school children are being taught and supervised in the best possible way. The problem is that either we don’t know the best way, or the people who do know aren’t being listened to. Can the new chancellor provide instruction or guidance in the most serious and compelling issue of public policy?

Mr. Stern, president of New York Civic, is a frequent contributor to The New York Sun.

The New York Sun

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