Thursday, February 14, 2008

'Broken Hearts' Protest Targets School Budgets

February 14, 2008 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version

'Broken Hearts' Protest Targets School Budgets

BY ELIZABETH GREEN - Staff Reporter of the Sun
February 14, 2008

School budget cuts ordered by Mayor Bloomberg two weeks ago are creating a drumbeat of protest across the city that will culminate this afternoon in a planned Valentine's Day march being billed as "The Broken Hearts March."

The demonstration, organized by a group of female students in Brooklyn, is attracting a wide coalition of support, from parents at a Park Slope primary school, who have launched a letter-writing campaign, to students at the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School who have been pitching their cause in fliers and on Facebook. Principals and elected officials will also join the march from Brooklyn to the Education Department headquarters in Lower Manhattan, a spokeswoman for City Council Member William de Blasio, Jean Weinberg, said.

Principals learned their budgets had been cut by 1.75% two weeks ago in an evening e-mail message. Mr. Bloomberg defended the cuts, saying he knew of no organization that could not withstand such a downsizing.

Now, as cuts go into effect, with principals erasing a slate of extras, including after-school programs, Saturday school, field trips, and even, in one case, a replacement teacher for a woman going on maternity leave, people are challenging that idea.

Saying their debate club, literary magazine, and art supplies are in danger, parents at the Institute for Collaborative Education in Manhattan are rushing their regular fundraising drive, according to e-mail messages sent to parents.

Even some supporters of Mr. Bloomberg's are raising objections.

"Joel Klein has done a lot of wonderful things, and I won't take that away," Joseph Capra, a budget and program consultant at a group that has been a major supporter of the schools chancellor, the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association, said. "But sometimes I question the wisdom of the decisions that are made by people at the DOE."

Mr. Capra said that about 15% or 20% of the 55 schools he works with are in dire straits, and several schools will have to request loans from next year's budget to plug their current deficits, even after cutting a slate of programs.

"I made all the cuts that I could easily make, and they're still about $40,000 in the hole," Mr. Capra said of one school, noting that union contracts prohibit him from cutting the costliest area, personnel from teachers to secretaries, in the middle of the school year. At La Guardia, the selective performing arts high school where the president of the city's public school students' union, Seth Pearce, is a senior, a major concern is next year's annual winter musical, for which preparation begins this spring. At a recent meeting of the school's leadership team, the musical came up as a possible cut, Mr. Pearce said.

The city has cut La Guardia's budget, which totals nearly $16 million, by $273,207.

"Students are so passionate about this," Mr. Pearce said. "They really feel like they're being cheated, like the state and the city are really not giving them the respect they deserve as learners and as the future of our city, our state, and our society."

The march comes one day after a union-funded survey of parents challenged the idea that parental confidence in the education system has been growing.

The survey detected opposition to many of the policies of Mr. Bloomberg's administration, including giving students financial incentives for high test scores and not promoting students between grades if they do not pass statewide tests.

More than 80% of parents said overcrowding has either stayed the same or worsened, and more than 70% said smaller classes were a better way to improve schools than creating small schools, the program Mr. Klein has pushed.

A non-profit group, Class Size Matters, organized the study, and the telephone survey was conducted by the polling company Peter D. Hart Research Associates. The executive director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson, said the United Federation of Teachers paid for the cost of the polling firm.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department, Maibe Gonzàlez-Fuentes, cited another professional poll conducted by the Community Service Society, which found that poor parents' willingness to grade their children's school a "B" or higher rose to 64% in 2007 from 24% in 2002.

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