NEW YORK — When music teacher Paul Trust returned to in-person teaching at P.S. 39 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, last year for the first time since the pandemic, he felt like he finally had the resources to dig in.
Trust was buying new equipment to start a “Drums Around the World” program. And the school revived its in-person winter and spring concerts — and a graduation ceremony.
“It was great to have all these things return, and I really felt like things were going in a very positive direction with regards to what I was hoping to accomplish,” Trust said in an interview. “I was hoping to take things to the next level.”
Then the New York City Council voted in June to slash education funding by $469 million for the upcoming school year. The cut, initially thought to be half that amount, has left school leaders scrambling to make do with less — a task further complicated by a lawsuit from parents and teachers, including Trust, who lost his position at P.S. 39.
The ordeal has thrown the nation’s largest school system into chaos that’s no closer to resolving as students return to class Thursday.
Since the City Council vote, which came at the urging of Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, a series of court decisions froze and then thawed the education budget — leaving schools with whiplash as they tried to make fiscal plans before the start of classes. The Council spent the summer working to reverse the cuts it approved, but ultimately failed to do so, instead passing a non-binding resolution Tuesday demanding City Hall restore the funding.
So far, the Adams administration released $150 million to partially mitigate the dip in funding.
But irreversible damage has already been done, according to the city’s teachers union. If the cuts are reversed again, schools would have sacrificed programs for no reason, according to United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. Restoring services is not as easy as axing them, and they likely couldn’t be revived before January, he said.
“When you’re talking about reprogramming, it’s not just, ‘Oh, we’ll just add this or that,’” Mulgrew said. “We’re talking about moving around numbers of students on the same grade level. You don’t want to do that. That’s a disruption to the students … that’s why end of January would probably be the best time you could put it back in.”
‘Disruption to the students’
At P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold on the Lower East Side, the school initially nixed a science teacher position due to the cuts — but its assistant principal moved to another school, freeing up money to restore the science educator for three days a week, according to Amanda Dutton, a first-grade special education teacher there. The science teacher was previously split between two schools, because P.S. 134 did not have enough funding to hire the teacher full-time.
The school recently learned they will get an interim assistant principal, and the literacy coach has now been assigned to spend half their time at P.S. 134 and half their time in another school.
The school aide — a position that supervises students and helps with clerical work — retired during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, there are two part-time aides, because there’s not enough money to pay them full-time. P.S. 134’s “family worker” — tasked with supporting students who do not have permanent housing — also retired years ago. The school previously lost its dance teacher and its provider of special education support services.
While those positions were eliminated before the budget cuts, it now seems even less likely they’ll return.
“Our school is at our bare bones trying to just survive,” Dutton said. “All of this time, the kids are going to be suffering because we’re short-staffed and we don’t have enough of things. … You have the teachers doing more jobs than usual. You have the teacher’s aide doing more than they can do, the administration’s trying to cover also … that stress goes onto the kids, too.”
Martin Urbach — who serves as the restorative justice coordinator, sophomore advisor and dean of culture at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan — said the cuts have created uncertainty for his campus, as well.
Because of the cuts, the school is unable to continue the planned growth of its restorative justice team from two to four people.
“Although my position is not cut … our plan and our hope was to hire at least two more school aides that would be taking part in the restorative justice plan,” Urbach said. “We were basically working toward expanding our team from a two-person team to a four-person team and now that’s no longer going to be possible.”
And even at the Department of Education, administrators are feeling the pain: The Office of Safety and Youth Development has been folded into another division.
Legal battle wages on
Cuts to education were the one sticking point that emerged in an otherwise smooth budget process this year, which Council wrapped up three weeks early thanks to unexpectedly high city revenue. A breakaway group of progressives voted against the budget, citing the schools cuts, but the fiscal plan overwhelmingly passed.
The blowback came almost immediately. Since then, several Council members have apologized for approving the cuts and claimed the Adams administration misled them about the scale of the cost reductions.
Trust, the music teacher, and the other plaintiffs lodged their lawsuit in July, contending the Council violated the law by passing the budget without first getting it approved by a Department of Education oversight board called the Panel for Educational Policy. The city argues the approval is procedural, and said the panel signed off on the funding plan after the Council approved the budget in June.
In early August, a state judge ruled that the Council can either do the schools budget vote over again or deliver the same funding levels from the 2021-22 school year. But four days later, an appellate court unfroze the city’s education budget pending arguments in the case scheduled for Sept. 29.
Trust, meanwhile, has been hired by another school, Brooklyn Collegiate, but he says the legal battle should continue, because a victory for the plaintiffs would give principals the option to refund programs that were taken away.
“Let’s say that the judge rules in favor,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that the City Council is currently trying to engage the mayor in discussions to try to get this resolved sooner than later and not let the lawsuit play out. We’re hoping that’s the case. The mayor needs to be an active negotiating partner. I don’t know if the City Council has that.”
Adams and David Banks, the chancellor of the Department of Education, are “committed to providing our students with the best education possible,” the mayor’s deputy press secretary, Amaris Cockfield, said in a statement.
“Our schools have the resources they need to open on-time … and to provide a high-quality education to the students they have,” Cockfield said in a statement. “The funding in the budget has been approved for months and was negotiated, reviewed, and voted on by the City Council with full transparency.”
She also said it was “responsibly adjusted” to tackle declining enrollment while keeping every school at 100 percent of Fair Student Funding, a formula that serves as the main source of funding for New York City public schools.
“Further, we have allocated all federal stimulus dollars to critical programs and needs,” she added. “We look forward to celebrating the first day of school next week and giving our students the education they need to thrive.”