In his first budget proposal since taking office, Mayor Eric Adams this week outlined cuts to the education department and other city agencies. The backlash was swift.
Some education advocates called it a “scarcity” budget, with one group saying it would cause “irreparable harm” to students.
The reality, however, is more complicated.
Though Adams identified $557 million in reductions to the teaching workforce, school budgets, and the ranks of school safety agents, his budget proposal would actually boost overall city spending on schools by 3% compared to last year.
Still, because the city spent a significant infusion of one-time federal relief money last year, the education department’s whole budget — also composed of state and federal dollars — will fall by $1 billion, even with the city’s increased contribution.
“The biggest decline, by large, is by federal aid, most of which is the stimulus,” said Ana Champeny, deputy research director at Citizens Budget Commission.
The education department’s operating budget would total $30.7 billion under Adams’ proposal, with increases of about $281 million for charter schools and $134 million for pupil transportation.
In all, the budget would be about $2 billion higher than the year before the pandemic hit, said Sarita Subramanian, assistant director of education policy at the city’s Independent Budget Office.
The proposal only represents an opening salvo, and the details of the budget must be negotiated with the City Council. That process can lead to significant changes before a final deal is reached in July.
Still, the mayor’s proposal represents an early glimpse into his priorities at the education department and other corners of city government.
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A City Hall spokesperson said education is one of Adams’ “top priorities” and will propose more education-related initiatives in the updated version of his budget proposal which is expected in the spring.
Here’s what we know so far about how the mayor’s opening budget proposal with affect schools:
Hiring freeze on vacant roles
Adams has proposed cutting over 3,600 vacant positions at the education department, 95% of which are for “pedagogical” positions, or ones that require some sort of teaching or administrator license.
City officials expect that schools will need to hire fewer staff because of enrollment losses, according to a City Hall spokesperson.
Cutting vacant positions drew concern from advocacy organization Advocates for Children, which has petitioned the education department to hire more staffers to support homeless students, children in foster care, and those learning English as a new language.
“We’ve seen the impact of past hiring freezes on the students we serve—it’s taken longer for students who are homeless to get a school placement, for students with disabilities to get a bus route, and for parents to get help navigating through roadblocks their children encounter,” said Randi Levine, policy director for Advocates for Children.
Given the “unprecedented funding” to the education department from the state and federal governments, Levine said, “we had hoped the City would increase support for students, not decrease it.”
Adams called for a hiring freeze for most city agencies, but half of those staff reductions — set to take effect at the new fiscal year on July 1 — are slated for the education department.
The mayor framed his budget as an effort to make city government more efficient, insisting that officials will “keep pushing agencies to tighten their belts and make the most of the city’s resources.” By contrast, the city’s workforce and budget grew substantially under Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio.
Fewer school safety agents
The budget proposal calls for permanently cutting 560 school safety agents from a force that had already been shrinking during the pandemic.
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The school safety division currently has roughly 3,500 agents, schools Chancellor David Banks said earlier this month. That’s down from about 5,000 in June 2020, according to a state comptroller report.
The permanent reduction of about 560 of the current vacancies is expected to save about $22 million a year.
Banks has indicated that he is “very concerned” about attrition among school safety agents, especially at overcrowded schools.
“I don’t see them as quote unquote ‘police in our schools.’ I see them as people who are every bit as much a part of the fabric of the school as our third grade teacher,’” he said this month.
The mayor has said he is open to reducing the number of agents over time.
Banks and Adams have yet to share their overarching plans for how school safety agents operate in schools, but any changes to the school safety division will prove contentious.
Some advocates and parents have expressed concern about shortages of safety agents, especially given concerns about students struggling to regulate their emotions and behavior after two years of pandemic disruptions.
Other advocates and students say there are far too many school safety agents, who by themselves would comprise one of the largest police forces in the country. Those advocates argue the safety agents play a role in tangling up students in the criminal justice system.
Brielka Rodriguez, a Staten Island 10th grader and advocate for school safety reform, said she was frustrated that the mayor’s budget did not include deeper reductions to the school safety division. The agents can make her feel policed, she said, describing the humiliation of being searched by agents on her way into school.
She wishes the city would invest more in staff geared toward addressing students’ mental health, noting that safety agents rather than counselors are sometimes the first people who respond if a student is having an outburst or emotional issue.
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“I feel like the city isn’t actually listening to us,” said Rodriguez, a youth leader with the Urban Youth Collaborative. “The money has not been directed to stuff we need in our communities like more guidance counselors.”
Cuts to schools with shrinking enrollment
Typically, when a school’s projected enrollment is higher than the number of students who show up in the fall, the education department claws back funding mid-year. Some schools find themselves on the hook to return hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That policy — which was paused during the pandemic in part thanks to an infusion of federal funding — would phase back in over the next two school years under the mayor’s proposal. The city will soften the blow for two years using some of the remaining federal COVID relief funding, but will begin issuing cuts. (The city did not say how the cuts would be spread across schools.)
The bottom line is that schools will see a cut of about $215 million next year that would have otherwise flowed directly to their budgets. That could have an impact on school leaders’ ability to maintain current staff levels or support enrichment programming on campuses with larger than expected enrollment drops.
By the 2024-2025 school year, the city will stop offsetting the financial impact of mid-year enrollment declines in school budgets entirely, which will result in school budgets that are about $375 million lower, budget documents show.
The mayor suggested the cuts could be offset somewhat if students returned to their campuses. But enrollment has been falling for years pre-pandemic, and roughly 75% of schools enrolled fewer students this year.
Cuts to education department headquarters
When Adams appointed Banks as chancellor, they vowed to shake up the central bureaucracy.
Adams’ opening budget includes about $110 million in cuts this school year and $57 million each year after that in cuts to the education department’s central offices, which include salaries, overtime, professional development, and per-session costs. Officials did not provide further details about the cuts.
Slashing professional development was also part of the de Blasio administration’s budget plans, Subramanian said.