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Dist. 24 slams DOE at forum on funds plan

At an education meeting last Thursday, the representative from the city Department of Education could barely be heard over the boos and hisses of parents in a Maspeth auditorium.

The emergency meeting of the District 24 Community Education Council was designed to address the DOE’s plan to take 30 percent of schools’ savings or rainy-day funds if they do not spend the money by March 18.

“The city is facing financial problems,” Robert Wilson of the DOE said. “And the fact is that 89 percent of schools have rolled over money for the last three years in a row.”

Last year, the rainy day funds from public schools totaled $80 million, Wilson said. He also reminded the audience that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has doubled school funding since 2002.

But his justifications were not well-received.

“Rollover is important to me in so many ways,” said John Lavelle, principal of PS 128 at 69-10 65th Drive. “This violates the basic rules of fairness.”

Lavelle blasted the DOE for the timing of the cuts and said he was informed about the proposal less than two weeks before the original spending deadline.

He said the proposal should have been made public last June.

“All of a sudden, after Valentine’s Day they say we’re going to confiscate this money if you don’t spend it in 11 days,” he said. “Seven of those days were vacation.”

Lavelle also criticized the policy for unfairly penalizing certain schools since some kept more in their rainy-day funds than others.

For example, the principal at IS 93 had saved $300,000 for a plan to hire four special education teachers, but since the city would take $100,000 of the funds, the plan would have to be scrapped.

“That money was intentionally saved for next year so we can ensure we can have teachers in front of the students,” said Principal Edward Santos.

Other principals from around the district took turns at bashing the proposal and discussing their tight budgets before the CEC voted on a resolution calling on the city to reconsider.

“This money is our God-given right,” said one parent after the vote, when the floor was opened for residents to air their grievances.

But the Deferred Program Planning Initiative, created by Bloomberg in 2007, was designed to act as a contingency plan for schools that managed their money well, and according to a spokesman, the city is running out of places to cut the budget.

““The mayor has specifically protected the DOE from cuts more than any other agency,” said Mark LaVorgna, a spokesman for the mayor. “That said, it’s a third of the budget, so we do have to trim from there as well.”

Area lawmakers like City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and state Sen. Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) called on the city to cut more waste instead of trimming the education budget.

City Comptroller John Liu recently denied the city a $20 million teacher recruitment program in an effort to save money to stop layoffs.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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