Officials vow to release contracts info earlier; take heat for budget delay

Members of the public and the city’s Panel for Educational Policy will now have more time to examine the details of contracts being considered by the Department of Education, an official promised Wednesday.

Weeks after facing criticism for how it handled a contract worth up to $637 million from a company implicated in an earlier scandal, Ray Orlando, the department’s chief financial officer, said the department would post information about any proposed contracts online 30 days before the panel’s monthly votes. His office would also provide members with notice of contracts in the pipeline for the following two months, he said, and was exploring new ways to communicate with members about the details of the contracts.

And though he warned that a glut of pre-kindergarten contracts was on the way, “We are committed to minimizing exceptions going forward as well,” Orlando said.

The promises follow something of a transparency fiasco for the administration. The five-year contract to expand Internet access in the city’s schools was approved only after heated discussion in February, after Leonie Haimson, the executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters, noted on her blog that the company involved had been tied to a kickback scandal. Officials defended the process but also said they would look at improving it. (The contract itself was later canceled.)

Meanwhile, the city got low marks for transparency from City Council members Wednesday, who said the education department “basically ignored” a step in the oversight process for its $77.7 billion budget.

Officials did not submit a new version of its $13.5 billion capital budget, which covers five years of school construction, technology spending, and plans for class size reduction. That forced the members to focus their oversight hearing on the plan submitted months earlier, which included $783 million in new state money to fund technology in schools and construction projects for new pre-kindergarten programs.

Elizabeth Rose, the department’s acting deputy chancellor for operations, said updates were on the way, and the department was simply waiting for final approval from the city’s budget office. Education committee chair Daniel Dromm, typically a friendly presence, called that “negligent, disrespectful to the Council, and counterproductive.”

At a separate hearing earlier in the day, Chancellor Carmen Fariña got a warmer reception testifying on the budget that covers salaries for school and administrative staff, contracts, and extracurricular programs. That plan is estimated to cost $21.6 billion, $839 million more — or a 4 percent increase — over last year.

Much of that increase, $506 million, is due to salary increases and backpay agreed to in the city’s new contract with the United Federation of Teachers.

The council did question why the city had not yet set aside money to support its plan for improving low-performing schools for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1. Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled that plan last year, vowing to give 94 low-performing schools $150 million over three years. The city so far has only allocated $30.7 million, all of which is earmarked for this year.

Later in the day, de Blasio explained that the funding would be fully set out in the city’s final budget proposal, to be released in April. He said only funding for programs that were “ready and fully baked” in February.

Fariña said that money for this year, which comes from state grants and includes $5.2 million of city funding, has gone toward paying staff to lengthen school days, keeping schools open on Saturday for extra classes, and staff training.

Officials also said the city would have $39.8 million less in federal funding, partially because gentrifying neighborhoods are losing low-income families and disqualifying schools from Title I funding, which boosts budgets at schools with concentrations of high-needs students.

“As schools who have a majority of free-lunch students now move away from that, it’s really affecting their zones, more seriously in some places,” Fariña said. (That type of shift prompted parents at P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights to start a $160,000 fundraising drive in 2012.)

Federal Race to the Top grants, which spurred many of the education-policy changes statewide over the last four years, have also dried up. The losses and a drop in lunch subsidies for low-income students add up to $69 million, but will be partially offset by an increase in federal funding from medical reimbursements, officials said.