A City Council hearing on school spending got off to a dramatic start Wednesday when some 100 students wearing blue athletic jerseys turned inside-out marched into the council chambers to deliver petitions demanding more money for school sports.

The athletes are among the 1,700 students in an athletic league that a teacher created to serve small high schools that are not part of the main city-funded league. The City Council had called on the city to devote $1.25 million to the league, but the mayor’s budget left out the funding, so the league’s founder decided to file a civil rights complaint.

“We can’t wait one more day, for one more excuse,” shouted David Garcia-Rosen, the founder and a history teacher at International Community High School in the Bronx, before guards ushered the group out of the chambers. (The education department has said that most high schools already have sports teams and that it is working to include more small schools in its league.)

The Small Sports Athletic League was just one of several education-related City Council requests that did make it into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s budget for next year. Among the other unfunded proposals are free lunch for all students, bigger school budgets, and restructured school-support networks.

Council members questioned the schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and other officials about those missing funds and other concerns, such as increased funding for charter schools and space for new pre-kindergarten seats. Still, the tone was hardly combative, with several members praising Fariña’s educational credentials and the city’s pre-K expansion.

“Thank you all, I’m actually leaving here smiling,” Fariña told the council, before heading to another meeting without taking questions from the press.

Here are some other highlights from the joint hearing.

Bigger school budgets

Individual school budgets will not budge next school year, Fariña said.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city was owed $2.5 billion more in education funding from the state.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the city was owed $2.5 billion more in education funding from the state.
PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Wall

The council had asked the city to use any extra state funds to boost school budgets, but that money was directed to after-school programs and charter schools, which must receive more money per pupil under a new state law.

Education committee chairman Daniel Dromm wondered on Wednesday whether the flat funding would stop schools from hiring enough teachers to keep up with rising student enrollments, leading to larger class sizes.

In her testimony, Fariña highlighted new school spending in the mayor’s budget: $300 million for pre-K, $145 million for after-school programs, $23 million for arts education, and $13 million to support English-language learners.

She said some of those programs should save schools money, since they will no longer have to pay for them from their own budgets. Also, the city will soon lift a hiring freeze on new guidance counselors and art teachers, Fariña added.

Still, she said the city is owed an additional $2.5 billion from the state for next year, which would have gone towards school budgets, smaller class sizes, and supports for young students.

“We will continue to fiercely advocate for our students’ fair share,” Fariña said in her testimony.

Free school lunches for all

The City Council wanted the city to pay for free school lunches for all students, arguing that the current system stigmatizes students from low-income families who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Only one-third of the 780,000 eligible students currently accept the meals, according to advocates who held a press conference before the hearing.

The mayor did not include the universal free-lunch program in his budget, which would cost $24 million. Officials said on Wednesday that they worried the program could jeopardize some schools’ federal funding. But Fariña said one option is to pilot a scaled-down version of the plan, perhaps starting just in middle schools.

Service hubs inside schools

Some schools offer students health, dental, and vision services on campus, an arrangement that several council members said they’d like to see spread to more schools.

Fariña pointed to the mayor’s plan to create 100 new “community schools,” which provide those services and others to students and their families. But while the mayor’s budget sets aside $1.3 million for new school nurses, it does not include the $12.5 million that advocates have sought for the first batch of community schools next year.

Council members did not ask about that funding at the hearing. Before it began, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said she believes “very strongly” in the idea of community schools, but that she has not yet discussed funding for it with the administration.

Support for schools

Many have questioned the usefulness of the school-support networks, and the City Council called for restructuring that system in order to save money.

Fariña said a team is surveying schools about their experiences with the networks, which she has said previously will remain in place for now. The city also received a $500,000 grant to train local superintendents to better support schools, she said. The ultimate goal is a system where “where one phone call is going to get you the answer,” she added.

Space for pre-K

While most council members praised the plan to expand pre-K, some questioned whether their districts would see many new seats. Finance committee chairwoman Julissa Ferreras, who represents parts of Queens, said her district lacks public school space or local nonprofits that could offer many new pre-K seats.

“So what happens in districts like mine,” she asked, “where we hear about this great program and parents line up at 5 in the morning to try to get the few pre-K seats that are in existence?”

Sophia Pappas, the education department official who oversees pre-K, said the goal is for every neighborhood to have plenty of pre-K options, but in the meantime parents may need to look for open seats near their jobs or their relatives’ homes.