How this Brooklyn school is coping with budget cuts for the coming year

City Council members spoke at City Hall in support of increased educational funding, June 23, 2022. (Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit)

This story was originally published on June 26 by THE CITY.

The last day of the academic year on Monday at Brooklyn’s MS 839 will see more than its usual share of farewells, because like at many other schools around the city those leaving will include teachers who have been “excessed” — laid off because of citywide budget cuts.

The teachers at the Kensington middle school describe it as a warm, joyous community dedicated to empowering its students. But some of those teachers will be leaving. 

One of the “excessed” teachers said it felt like they were in a nightmare when they found out in mid-June about the budget cuts. The teacher feels fortunate that the administration was transparent, but describes the impact of the budget cuts as “demoralizing” to the community. (The teacher asked to remain anonymous while they awaited word from the DOE on their next placement.)  

“Requiring a teacher to leave a school not only impacts the school they’re leaving, but also the growth of that teacher and the commitment to their career,” said the teacher. 

That teacher and at least one other got a last-minute reprieve, learning just before the end of the school year that their jobs would be saved after all — because some veteran teachers were accepting positions at other schools. 

Other excessed educators may have to resort to finding a new job within the Department of Education, if there are no openings in the school staff heading into next year.

Like at every school in the city, the community has spent the past year recovering from COVID shutdowns and remote and hybrid learning, helping kids rebound academically and emotionally. Unlike at many, enrollment has held fairly stable at 359 students — down slightly from 2020-21— but at or above levels from previous years.

Teachers, parents and students from MS 839 held a rally earlier this month after the city Department of Education first released pared-down budgets for the next school year, where they called on the City Council to postpone their planned budget vote that day that included a $215 million funding decrease for public schools.   

The group held signs while chanting “Stop the cuts” and “If you cut back, we will fight back.”

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MS 839 is slated to see a 15% budget cut from last year’s budget, which amounts to approximately $825,000, financial documents show.  

The budget cuts had first been proposed by Mayor Eric Adams in February, and the DOE has asserted that they are tied to decreasing enrollment as well as the phasing out of federal COVID relief funds.

Adams has defended the budget decrease for public schools, pointing to the declining enrollment numbers of students as the reason for the “shrinkage.”

“Some people who are talking about this are being disingenuous. This is not a cut,” Adams said on Good Day New York.

When the Council voted to pass the Fiscal Year 2023 budget later the night of the MS 839 protest, teachers at the school were immediately anxious about what those cuts would mean for their community.  

Principal Michael Perlberg sent an email last friday outlining the impact on the school: some teachers at the school would be dismissed — though they would continue to be paid by the Department of Education while awaiting redeployment to other positions.  

Perlberg wrote in the email that less than 10% of the MS 839 budget reduction was tied to enrollment, with the rest due to a loss of federal funding according to the DOE. The email describes the teachers as “incredibly talented and loving” and mentions that losing them will be largely felt. 

The educators who remain say the bureaucratic maneuverings are causing needless damage. 

“We are not Lego pieces to be plucked from one school and into the next,” said Frank Marino, an 8th grade teacher who will be returning next school year. Marino also serves as a United Federation of Teachers delegate.

‘It’s never easy’

Testifying at a City Council hearing Friday on the school cuts, Deputy Schools Chancellor Daniel Weisberg said that current DOE funding does not allow for teachers to remain in their current school placements as student population declines, when those teachers are needed at schools elsewhere. 

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Weisberg also pointed to an impending loss of federal COVID student recovery funding.

“It’s never easy to manage decreases in school funding,” said Weisberg.

While the city will increase its funding to Public Schools in the newly passed fiscal budget by $700 million, Council Members pushed to understand the $215 million decrease in school funding outlined in the Department of Education’s budget.

At the hearing organized by Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph (D-Brooklyn), a former DOE elementary school teacher, Council members demanded to know why schools in their districts were targeted for cuts, challenged DOE projections for student enrollment and pushed to understand the reasoning for budget allocations.

​​“Why is the DOE central budget growing while schools are going to lose money? Why is DOE unable to have teachers who are at risk of being excessed remain in their current schools?,” asked Councilmember Shahana Hanif, whose district includes MS 839.

 In an interview with THE CITY, Hanif underscored her concerns about the public school funding cuts and expressed frustration with the mayor and DOE. Hanif accused Weisberg of “evading questions,” with “major discrepancies in his responses” during Friday’s hearing.

“I’m genuinely disappointed and embarrassed that we’re here in the COVID era and need to put pressure on our mayor to support young people and our schools,” said the Council member. 

Marino says schools were “lifeboats’’ for children at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and teachers are not getting the “thank you” they deserve with these budget cuts. 

JD Davids is co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association at MS 839 and parent of a rising 8th grader at the school. Davids says he is devastated on behalf of teachers who’ve been working through a time of immense trauma and loss and are now getting “thrown away.” 

“I know how much work everyone has been doing to be there for the school community and then to be penalized instead of the DOE affirming resources is unconscionable,” said Davids.

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More cuts needed

Perlberg’s email also stated the school still needs to find $200,000 in savings. The school has eliminated all leadership positions for teacher professional development, plans to increase class sizes from 25 to 33, expects to trim art enrichment programs and is considering eliminating other school offerings.

The budget decrease will primarily be in the Fair Student Funding for New York City public schools. This weighted formula was created in 2007 to determine funding based on the number of enrolled students and their needs. Critics argue the model is outdated and thus isn’t a good indication of the funds needed in schools.  

“The resources kids need in 2022, which I know are substantial, are different in many ways to what they needed in 2006,” said Michael A. Rebell, professor and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College.  

Earlier this year, members of the Panel for Educational Policy initially voted against using the formula, with some members citing equity concerns, before approving it at a subsequent meeting. 

MS 839 teachers argue that even the money allocated to their school over the years has not been enough and these cuts will set their planning for next year back tremendously. 

“Once again, teachers and staff are put in position to defend the bare minimum. We should be demanding more,” said Marino. “Our children deserve more.” 

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