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To the Editor,
The Common Council's unanimous approval of a Democratic-sponsored resolution calling for an appropriation "not to exceed" $1.8 million for the Board of Education marks a significant step forward in the quest to maintain critical programs and staff at our schools. But that debate is far from over. The argument now moves back to the mayor and the Board of Estimate and Taxation, which must craft a rescue package using the multiple tools at its disposal.
But time is running out. The BET's ill-timed decision to cancel its July 2 meeting likely means that layoff notices and program cuts will be implemented, only to be restored when and if the BET restores the funds. (Here is an idea: The next time the city faces an unprecedented financial crisis, perhaps it would be better to postpone the holiday barbecue?)
While the BET gets around to implementing the Council Council's resolution (or an alternative plan that would accomplish the same result), it might be a good time to also consider the real cause of the current crisis. Notwithstanding the administration's claims to the contrary, this was not just an accounting error. The root cause of the current crisis was a failure of leadership and a series of short-sighted decisions by the administration.
Evidence presented at numerous public meetings shows that beginning in 2009, the Board of Education did not fully contribute to the city's common insurance fund. This "inter-agency" fund is used to pay for all city insurance obligations – health, workers compensation, general liability, etc. Because of the way the city and the BOE contributed to and accounted for this fund, the BOE's underpayments were simply not detected.
Thus, while the BOE's budget called for a $25 million annual contribution to the fund, current calculations show the BOE actually contributed about $23.8 million in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 fiscal years. Rather than use these funds as called for in the budget, the BOE used those funds for programs and in areas that were overbudget.
While poor BOE accounting practices led to the failure to detect the underpayments to the Insurance Fund, those accounting practices did not cause the underfunding. Rather, it was the city that created the current crisis by failing to adequately fund the BOE over the last three years. Let's be clear: The BOE's accounting practices prevented the underfunding from being detected. But the city's funding practices caused the underfunding in the first place.
For example, during one meeting, council members were told that the BOE's special education expenses traditionally exceed budget projections by $500,000 or $600,000 each year. To me, if the BOE knows it will spend $500,000 or more than budgeted every year, the program cannot be called "overbudget" – it is underfunded! By simultaneously demanding the BOE expand educational opportunities for our kids, close the achievement gap, comply with state mandates and show improving test scores while refusing to give the BOE the funds needed to accomplish these tasks, the current crisis was not "unanticipated" — in was inevitable.
The city further contributed to the current crisis when it suddenly directed that the $4 million shortfall (which was created over three years) be corrected all at once. This $4 million "hit" is the second action by this administration that directly led to the current crisis. Even though the problem took years to create, the city directed it to be cured overnight. (The partial solution heralded by the administration as providing $2.6 million was merely a decision to "un-do" the demand that the gap be fixed in one year. That "solution" was the same as saying "never mind" to the city's "fix it now" directive.)
The combination of these shortsighted decisions (chronically underfunding the BOE and demanding immediate correction) brought us to the current crisis. Now that the Common Council has set forth a plan to stop these cuts from being implemented, it is up to the mayor and the BET to restore the funds. They must act quickly. The delay has already caused turmoil. Every day that goes by simply compounds the injury done to those who had nothing to do with creating the problem — our kids, teachers, and staff.