Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The 30% Solution

50% Grab Cut to 30%

But It's Still a Chunk

Of Principals' Junk

Last Thursday we reported about an injustice at the Department of Education, a decision by Tweed to confiscate half the money principals had saved from their budgets to deal with the severe cuts expected in the FY 2012 budget, which begins July 1.

The clawback was denounced by the principals of the affected schools, who said that their efforts at economy had been rewarded by headquarters seizing half the money the saved, unless they spent it by March 18. That would encourage wasteful spending to beat the deadline.

Yesterday the city retreated, by reducing its bite out of the schools' savings from 50 to 30 per cent. The story is told on A22 of today's Times in an article by Fernanda Santos, under the headline CITY AGREES TO TAKE LESS OF SCHOOL PRINCIPALS' BUDGET SAVINGS. Her lede:

"The New York City Education Department said Monday that it would allow principals to roll more money than anticipated from this year’s budget into next year's, but that they would still have to return some unspent money to the school system headquarters.

"Knowing that budget cuts were quite likely, many principals tried to stash some of this year's money, but Schools Chancellor Cathleen P. Black informed principals last month that the city would take 50 cents for every dollar they had managed to save. They protested that they were being punished for frugality, and on Sunday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said during a radio interview that they had a point.

"The chancellor and the mayor met on Monday afternoon at City Hall. Afterward, the Education Department announced a compromise: The principals would have to return 30 percent of the money, or, as the department explained in a brief statement, the money would 'carry a 70 percent' in the school year that begins in September.

"Principals were not exactly appeased..."

The rest of the article contains the principals' objections and the chancellor's rationalization for her action and volte-face, and the mayor's approval of the result.

In our article Thursday, we speculated (we do not know) whether the original decision to take back the money which had been promised to the schools came from the chancellor or the Mayor. We thought that if the clawback came from Ms. Black, the mayor would have no trouble over-ruling her, since she is his creature. If the Mayor really wanted the cuts made, he would be unlikely to retreat completely. That is not his nature, nor is his obduracy necessarily a negative when dealing with matters of principle.

The 30 per cent solution is somewhat mystifying. The obvious compromise is to cut the baby in half, changing the clawback from 50 to 25 percent. The extra nickel being withheld is a symbol of who rules the roost, and it is not the principals, even though most of them were originally chosen by the Tweedlings. The amount of money at stake here is not great, the 5 percent difference comes out to $4 million citywide out of a budget that exceeds $21 billion, or less than one-fiftieth of one per cent, which is truly minuscule, except as a demonstration of power.

If Tweed wanted to change the rules of reimbursement, it should have done so for the next fiscal year, rather than allowing principals to make savings and at the last moment telling them they could not spend half the money they saved unless they bought tchotchkis within two weeks. That looked silly to everyone, and caused some embarrassment to the new Chancellor, whose reputation is based on her cost-cutting achievements as a publisher of Hearst magazines.

The mayor came to the rescue Monday afternoon with what appeared to be a compromise. The odd figure (30 percent) may be intended to convey the impression that the result is based on some rational computation, rather than simply patching over a mini-storm caused by promulgating an arbitrary scheme which undeniably would disappoint many more people than it would please, as well as carrying the odor of adults breaking their promises to children.

The money itself doesn't amount to a hill of beans, considering the huge size of the education budget. The switch shows that the mayor is responsive to reasonable criticism. The lesson for Tweed is to fight for principles, not against principals. This suggests Rule 21-W-1: "When will they ever learn?

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