De Blasio touts new millions in arts funding, but city not yet sure how it will be spent

Mayor Bill de Blasio marveled on Monday at pint-sized drawings of the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and even the Queens Mall created by fourth-grade students in Jackson Heights, Queens.

De Blasio stopped by the art class at Queens’ P.S. 69 to highlight the $20 million boost to arts education included in his new budget proposal, and to tout “important reforms” in the budget plan and the proposed teachers contract. Still, some big questions remain about the finer points of the mayor’s plans.

For the arts funding, de Blasio said the Department of Education had not yet decided how the millions would be spent, but that officials there would hash out plans over the next several months. His goal is for every school to have a strong arts program, which might involve schools partnering with nonprofits or pooling resources, he said.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña added that another strategy will be to fund middle school students’ weekly after-school visits to cultural institutions. Another idea she revealed is to have elementary, middle, and high schools jointly apply for shared arts grants so that students would enjoy an uninterrupted arts education from kindergarten to senior year. (It’s unclear exactly how that would work, since many students attend high school outside of their home districts.)

“I think all kids should graduate high school being proficient in some art form,” Fariña said.

Neither Fariña nor de Blasio mentioned using the increased arts funding to hire more teachers. A recent report found that one in five city schools does not have even a part-time art teacher, and those that do often load many students onto a single teacher. At P.S. 69, for instance, art teacher Michele Gilbride said she sees 870 students in 29 classes at the school each week.

“It’s exhausting,” she said, according to a pool report from the mayor’s classroom visit.

A Department spokeswoman said later that the arts money could potentially go to hiring new instructors.

At the press conference, de Blasio also touted other parts of the budget plan and a contract deal with the teachers union, which he said would make schools less crowded, vastly expand pre-kindergarten and middle school programs, and strengthen the ties between parents and teachers. But some questions still surround the implementation of both.

For example, the budget sets aside $4.4 billion to create 38,700 new school seats over the next five years. Advocates have pointed out that this still falls 16,500 seats short of the projected demand, but city officials had no comment when asked how the city would address the disparity.

Also, the budget allocates $480 million “for the removal of all” remaining classroom trailers. But de Blasio qualified that plan a bit Monday, saying that not “every single last trailer will be gone.” Instead, the city may allow students to remain in trailers that principals say provide “needed capacity,” de Blasio said.

In his remarks, the mayor did not address perhaps the most controversial component of the proposed teachers union contract: to grant teachers billions in back pay, but to spread the payments over several years.

He also failed to shed much new light on a change involving excessed teachers that has caused some confusion.

The proposed contract would make it easier to fire teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool if two principals document a teacher for “problematic behavior” in one school year. But the definition of problematic behavior is unclear, leaving critics to worry that it will be overly narrow. They point to a letter from the teachers union chief claiming that the term only covers misconduct, not poor classroom performance.

Asked Monday to clarify that definition, de Blasio passed that task to principals.

“We trust the principals to make an evaluation,” he said. “They have to look at those individuals and see if they think they can be productive in the context of their school.”