a rainy day

No across-the-board midyear budget cuts, but trimming begins

Schools won’t have to cut their budgets this month, but they will have to start tightening their belts and won’t be able to sock away any savings for next year.

That’s what Chancellor Dennis Walcott told principals in an email sent Monday evening, the first to name specific actions the Department of Education is taking to make up for $240 in state school aid sacrificed when the city and teachers union failed to agree on new teacher evaluations earlier this month.

Mayor Bloomberg is set to offer details about his plans to close the midyear school budget gap at a press conference later today. But Walcott said the department would absorb enough of the cuts centrally that he would not have to impose cuts of a certain size on each school, as happened several times during the leanest years of the economic recession.

Still, he announced several significant policy changes that could cost schools just the same. The department is doubling down on hiring restrictions, blocking schools from hiring substitute teachers, reducing aides’ schedules, and seizing funds that principals had set aside in this year’s budget for next year.

Starting Feb. 13, school aides working longer than five hours a day will have 30 minutes trimmed off their schedules, Walcott said. “You will need to revise staff workload and responsibilities to accommodate these reductions,” he told principals.

He also said the department would issue fewer exceptions to longstanding (and substantially relaxed) hiring restrictions and would require schools to use teachers assigned to them from the Absent Teacher Reserve before calling in an outside substitutes. Teachers in the ATR pool, those whose positions have been eliminated but who remain on the department’s payroll, have rotated among schools as short– and long-term substitutes for years.

And in a significant shift, Walcott announced that schools would not be able to hold onto any funds from this year to use next year through a program known as the “Deferred Budget Planning Initiative.” In 2010, department officials reversed plans to tap into the rainy-day funds after principals argued the cuts would penalize them for planning prudently. But two years ago, the department garnished some of the savings, allowing principals to hold on to the rest.

Now, principals have an incentive to spend their last cent on supplies and teacher training rather than set aside funds for next year, when the budget situation could be worse. Earlier on Monday, Bloomberg told legislators that the midyear loss, combined with proposed cuts next year, could cost the city 2,500 teaching positions and 700,000 hours of after-school programming over the next two years.

“No one will roll over when they know they will only get 50 cents on the dollar,” one principal told GothamSchools the last time the rainy-day funds were threatened.

Walcott appeared to acknowledge the spending incentive in his email, in which he told principals that “deadlines for budget modifications and purchasing will be slightly accelerated in the coming months.”

The chancellor’s complete message to principals is below:

Dear Colleagues,

As I shared with you on January 18, we are committed to designing a fair teacher evaluation system that would create meaningful supports and accountability for our teachers. However, despite our hard work over the past two years, the failure of the UFT to accept a fair and reasonable agreement on a new teacher evaluation system has triggered significant adverse effects on our budget, including an immediate reduction of $250 million in State funding.

In addition, Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget for next year includes significant cuts to our school district. At this morning’s State budget hearing, Mayor Bloomberg strongly urged the legislature to take immediate action to modify the Governor’s proposed budget so that it does not penalize our students. I’m writing today to provide you with more information about how we plan to address these upcoming and potential losses.

Immediate budget implications—for this school year

Cuts in central expenses will help offset some of these losses, and there will be no across-the-board PEG to schools this school year. However, we will need to work together to implement the programmatic changes and reductions outlined below. Your network will share more specific guidance with you as these plans are formalized over the next several weeks:

  • We will need to cancel the Deferred Program Planning Initiative that allows you to roll money into the following fiscal year to fund pedagogical staff and programs.
  • Consistent with an agreement with DC37 at the start of this school year to avoid layoffs, we will need to implement a reduction of 30 minutes in the schedules of school aides, supervising school aides, and school health service aides working 5 hours a day or more; and family workers working 6 hours a day or more. You will need to revise staff workload and responsibilities to accommodate these reductions which will go into effect on February 13. Funds associated with this reduction will be removed from your school budget.
  • We must strictly adhere to existing hiring restrictions, which limit the replacement of departing teachers, assistant principals, and guidance counselors to candidates in the ATR pool. Please carefully consider available internal staff before requesting an exception to hire externally.
  • You will need to utilize teachers from the ATR pool who have been rotated into your school in lieu of calling a sub of your own choosing or through Sub Central. When absences occur, assigned ATRs must be used to cover classes before other subs are called in for duty. We will reinstate the prior policy of a 50 percent discount rate, which will be deducted from your school budget.

Given the difficulties of attaining such large savings at the mid-year mark, deadlines for budget modifications and purchasing will be slightly accelerated in the coming months. A calendar with key end dates for financial transaction processing will be included in tomorrow’s Principals’ Weekly.

Anticipated budget implications—for school year 2013-14

While we are advocating strongly to prevent the Governor’s proposed budget from passing in the State legislature, and continuing to pursue solutions to the UFT’s attempt to block a fair evaluation system, it is possible that these additional reductions will become a reality in the 2013-14 school year. The proposed reductions could lead to significant staff attrition and close to 700,000 hours of lost tutoring, coaching, and arts enrichment programs.

Notwithstanding these fiscal challenges, we cannot abandon our goals or lose ground on the progress made so far. We must continue to focus our resources and energies on the needs of our students, striving to ensure that we are preparing them to succeed in our schools and beyond. I thank you for your hard work and flexibility, especially during these difficult times. We will continue to communicate with you about these issues as more information is available.

Dennis M. Walcott


This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director