under the knife

Education is not spared in city's latest round of budget cuts

To make up for an unexpected budget shortfall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is bringing city agencies under the knife—and for the second year in a row, the Department of Education will not be spared from midyear cuts.

On Friday, Bloomberg announced that the city’s agencies would have to collectively cut $2 billion, and the department’s share in the burden would amount to 1.6 percent of its own budget this year, and 4 percent next year.

Last fall, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the central offices would take the brunt of midyear cuts, but he skirted the issue of the city’s budget shortfall, which numbered in the billions and portended more cuts for 2012. This year, the schools budget was held flat—a fact that was hailed as an improvement by city officials and councilmembers, but still felt like a cut to many educators, who saw the costs of supplies, special education services, and teacher salaries continue to rise.

As we reported last year, midyear budget cuts like the ones being prepared for now are especially disruptive to schools because most expenses are fixed for the whole year. That means that only certain costs, such as after-school programs or tutoring, can go on the chopping block. And four straight years of budget cuts have already left class sizes on the rise and principals struggling to make ends meet.

“If we’ve got to cut, we’re going to be very tight, midyear, which would be a shame,” one principal who asked not to be identified said this afternoon.

Department officials have declined to say what areas are likely to see cuts this fall once the department submits its budget outline, due Oct. 4, to the Office of Management and Budget. That could mean individual schools are less likely to receive the same good news they heard last year, when Walcott quickly announced that midyear cuts would only hit the central offices shortly after Bloomberg first announced them.

Some schools were able to avoid cutting teachers in previous years by saving money in a rainy-day fund. But because city officials said they did not expect to impose more cuts after they set this fiscal year’s budget, the potential new cuts would catch principals off guard.

If some of this year’s cuts come out of the schools’ budgets, as they did in 2010, it could mean class sizes will rise as schools remove teaching positions. It could also mean cuts to librarians, arts and music teachers, and other specialized positions that are often among the first to go when schools make cuts.

“The first place people are going to look to cut will be what you have to pay for in addition to your teacher salaries,” for example tutoring sessions on Saturday mornings before exams, and replacement computer equipment, a Brooklyn high school principal said. “You always look to not have personnel be the issue.”

“It’s always a guessing game,” the principal said. “This year we spent our money on lowering class size in our 9th and 10th grade classes, which basically involves hiring additional people. That put more pressure on our upper grade classes. We are hoping to
ameliorate some of those pressures by hiring another teacher midyear if budget allows, but I’m certain that if we’re having budget cuts we won’t be able to.”

“Sometimes people retire midyear, so schools will look to see if they can cover those classes without hiring another person,” the principal added. “The only way to do that is to increase class sizes. That’s how we saved money in past years, but that’s exactly what we were hoping to avoid this year.”

In 2008, tasked with cutting $180 million mid-year, department officials took from school budgets, cut 475 administrative positions centrally, and eliminated positions for social workers and other service providers. In 2009, when the city cut $405 million from the department’s budget, schools had to make deep cuts to extracurricular activities and professional development programming, and in some cases, reduce their teaching force. The following year, Bloomberg asked the department to begin making more cuts in preparation for the budget shortfall projected for the 2012 fiscal year. That announcement resulted in schools carving out 1 percent of their budgets, a total of $79 million, in January 2010.

A department administrator who helmed a large high school through the years of budget cuts said school leaders making cuts once the school year is underway must consider what changes would affect students the least.

The administrator, who also did not want to be identified, said in past years she considered cutting school aids, skimping on new computers, and eliminating extra tasks that would require the school to pay teachers “per session” overtime fees. For some school leaders, those tasks could include out of class tutoring for students struggling to pass classes or prepare for state tests, and data analysis for those trying to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”