School & District Management

N.Y.C. Faces Fiscal Cuts; Chicago Starts Fresh

By Robert C. Johnston — September 05, 2001 4 min read
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The school year in New York and Chicago will open this week with different tones.

As students file back into classrooms in New York City, school officials there are bracing for $150 million in immediate budget cuts and $40 million in deferred programs called for by Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy last week.

The reductions, which must be made by local administrators, are expected to cut into drama, sports, and other extracurricular and after-school programs. Scores of unfilled administrative vacancies could remain empty.

Harold. O Levy

Additional city and state funding is possible later this fall. But with schools opening, Mr. Levy said in a statement it would not be prudent to wait and possibly make cuts midway through the school year. “If additional funds are forthcoming, I will act swiftly to channel the money where it will do the most good,” he added.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s new schools chief, who has been on the job since July, wants to energize his central office. Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, 36, also wants to revitalize Chicago’s neighborhood schools, enforce new promotion standards, and reach out to parents of truant children.

“We must play a leading role in uniting a city of adults behind our children,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview last week. “We have people around the table who know what good education looks like, not career bureaucrats.”

Impasse With Giuliani

In New York, Mr. Levy’s announcement of emergency belt-tightening followed weeks of strained talks with state and city officials over the district’s $11.5 billion budget.

The 1.1 million-student district was left $120 million short in anticipated revenue from the city for this school year, while a bare-bones state budget left it with another $170 million hole.

City officials said they would free more money if the chancellor would cut back on bureaucracy. In response, Mr. Levy pledged in August to trim $100 million this school year by axing 600 central- office positions and 300 posts in local districts.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was not impressed. He contended in a radio address last month that Mr. Levy was “playing around the edges.”

The Republican mayor has used the budget issue to push Mr. Levy to support some form of a voucher plan, a passion for the two-term mayor, who leaves office in January. So far, Mr. Levy has refused.

Unable to find common ground with the mayor, and unwilling to gamble that the state legislature will come up with more dollars, Mr. Levy called for the cutbacks, which include:

• Reducing or eliminating after-school programs and extracurricular activities in schools to save $29 million;

• Cutting purchases of lab equipment, computer software, and other supplies to trim $60 million;

• Eliminating some 2,000 supervisory and support positions to save $61 million; and

• Delaying plans to expand Saturday classes and other programs, for $40 million in savings.

“These cuts will unfortunately undermine a number of initiatives that are critical to our effort to prepare our children for even higher standards,” Mr. Levy said.

Focus on Reading

While Mr. Levy was contemplating his budget dilemma, Chicago’s schools chief was overseeing a spate of policy changes and introducing new appointments to the 431,000-student district.

Mr. Duncan defended a shift in the district’s effort to eliminate the automatic promotion of students to the next grade.

Some 14,000 students were promoted this fall to the next grade after attending summer school, but without meeting cutoff scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, as students in previous years had to do.

The change grew out of a 1999 complaint by a local advocacy group to the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, alleging the test-based promotion policy discriminated against minorities.

As part of an agreement with federal officials, the district now factors in attendance, classroom performance, behavior, and teacher input with new, higher cut scores on tests in deciding promotions. “It’s a common-sense approach. Look at college admissions—tests alone are not the lone factor,” Mr. Duncan said.

Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, which filed the complaint, hopes other districts take note.

“The simplistic use of the Iowa Tests in Chicago has led to younger dropouts, discrimination, and a poorer-quality curriculum,” she maintained.

In another move, the district is extending from two years to three the time that low-performing high schools have to turn around. Rather than relying on threats to fire teachers, the district is sending master teachers to five “intervention” schools.

“We’re trying to look at everything with a fresh eye,” Mr. Duncan said.

Mr. Duncan replaced Paul G. Vallas, who stepped down as CEO last spring after six years on the job and has since announced his candidacy for governor of Illinois. (“Chicago Schools’ Chief Executive Will Step Down,” June 13, 2001.)

The new schools chief wants to bring new blood to the central office, starting with Barbara J. Eason-Watkins as chief education officer. She had been the principal of McCosh Elementary School in Chicago since 1988.

Ms. Eason-Watkins’ priority will be a $20 million reading initiative. The district is hiring 100 reading specialists as part of the plan, which includes a first-ever districtwide curriculum framework for reading.

If the system takes a harder line under Mr. Duncan, it could be in its approach to parents of habitually truant students.

Parents who ignore truancy hearings could be sent to counseling, parenting classes, or 30 days of community service. Parents who failed to take those steps would have their names forwarded to the state’s attorney’s office for prosecution.

“The goal is to provide the support to families that are struggling,” Mr. Duncan said.

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