De Blasio proposes over $221 million in NYC education cuts, including pre-K and school budgets

Citing the coronavirus pandemic, officials announced a series of cuts to New York City’s budget on Tuesday, including hits to school budgets and some of the mayor’s core education priorities such as expanding free pre-K to 3-year-olds.

Some $121 million in education department cuts will go into effect this fiscal year, taking aim at professional development spending, which had already been a target of rollbacks, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Equity and Excellence” initiatives, which aim to address disparities in the country’s largest system.

The biggest single cut to the education department’s budget will take effect next fiscal year: $100 million will come out of the “fair student funding” formula, a city funding stream that directly finances school budgets and is designed to funnel more money to the highest-need schools. That represents a roughly 1.6% reduction to that funding stream.

The cuts are part of a $1.3 billion program to reduce spending through next fiscal year. Officials had previously announced they were looking for savings, but had not specified exactly where they would come from. 

The reductions will target some of de Blasio’s biggest education priorities, including pre-K — widely heralded as his signature achievement. The city is putting the brakes on expanding Pre-K for All to 3-year olds, which had been slated to open in four new districts next school year: Manhattan’s District 1, the Bronx’s district 12, Brooklyn’s District 14, and Queens’ District 29. That move will save the city $43 million. 

Also taking a hit: initiatives under de Blasio’s often-touted Equity and Excellence agenda, including a program that pairs middle school students with one-on-one counselors, and another aimed at setting students on a path to college. A summer program that provides hands-on activities for students and visits to cultural institutions is also being scaled back. Cutting those programs will save $49 million this year.

That’s in addition to eliminating the Summer Youth Employment Program — effective Wednesday. The program, which is not included as part of the education department’s budget, pays about 75,000 young people minimum wage for jobs at nonprofits, in government, and at private companies. Canceling the program is expected to save $124 million over this year’s and next year’s budgets.

The mayor’s proposed reduction to fair student funding, which will have an effect on school budgets, was met with some pushback. Mark Cannizzaro, head of the union that represents school administrators, acknowledged that cuts may be necessary, but said they should not come at the expense of classrooms.

“We believe there are other places to make cuts in New York City’s education budget and stand ready to help the DOE identify potential cost savings in other areas,” he said in a statement.

It’s not clear how the cuts to fair student funding, which accounts for the majority of most school budgets, will be spread out across schools. Not all schools receive the full budget that’s owed under the formula, while others receive more than 100%.

Sarita Subramanian, an education analyst at the Independent Budget Office, said the last time the city faced a financial crisis, in 2009-10, schools with higher funding levels saw greater reductions. 

De Blasio has previously promised that all schools would receive at least 90% of their funding under the formula. City Hall did not immediately respond to questions about whether the city can stand by that promise with the proposed reductions.

The cuts follow years of ballooning budgets under de Blasio, who has increased citywide spending by some $20 billion during a tenure that, until now, has been marked by a booming economy.

The mayor is expected to release his executive budget for next fiscal year on April 23, a document that is likely to reflect the city’s increasingly grim financial outlook as revenue plummets amid the coronavirus pandemic. After rounds of negotiations with City Council, a final budget must be approved by June.  

Overall, Subramanian said the cuts announced Tuesday are relatively modest, given the education department’s roughly $25 billion budget. But as the city’s financial outlook worsens, more cuts could be coming.

“The biggest question is what’s going to happen with revenue,” she said. “This is just the beginning of what we’re going to see in terms of the economic hit.”