Grimm Reality: No Relief for School Overcrowding in Budget

Sarah Laskow | May 18th, 2011

The New York City Department of Education once had “aspirations” to improve the city’s schools in all manner of ways, according to Kathleen Grimm, who testified yesterday at a City Council budget hearing. But as Grimm, a DOE deputy chancellor who oversees operations, reminded the council more than once, “the city’s fiscal condition has changed.”

The council has been facing up to that reality in a series of hearings on Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed budget. Earlier in the week, for instance, Council Finance Chair Dominic Recchia oversaw a rowdy hearing on the cuts to fire departments. Wednesday morning, the council’s hearing room was filled to capacity for Grimm’s testimony on the education department’s capital budget; in the afternoon, the room would turn over to a hearing on cuts on environmental issues.

Bloomberg’s proposed cuts to the education budget have drawn the most attention for the teacher layoffs they herald. But the education department’s capital budget, which goes towards building new schools and refurbishing older ones, is also being cut, which means the city has fewer resources to put towards reducing overcrowding in classrooms across the city.

Grimm, whose coral pink jacket was the brightest object in the hearing room, pointed out that other agencies faced capital cuts far larger than the six percent cut the DOE is looking at. The department also managed to salvage funding for improving technology in schools, which Grimm called “a basic element of public education.” (The administration’s “Road Map for the Digital City” also includes a program to improve access to broadband for 18,000 low-income middle schoolers and their families.)

The council members, however, were intent on talking about overcrowding.

“I understand the importance of technology in schools,”  said Robert Jackson, chair of the council’s education committee, in his opening statement. “But if students don’t have a desk to sit at, how will they benefit from wireless internet access?”

“I had to teach under conditions like this room today, in terms of overcrowding,” said council member Daniel Dromm, who worked for more than two decades as a public school teacher. Every seat in the hearing room was filled, and a couple of people had been turned away. “That’s the reality of what we’re talking about today.”

James Vacca, a council member from the Bronx, told Grimm that in his district, “I’m still waiting for 318 seats.” Grimm said that the project in question had no identified site and that under current budget conditions, projects without sites had been shunted to the next capital plan. “We’re not losing track of the need,” she said.

“Well, I want to meet with you,” Vacca responded. “I want something done in my community.”

Grimm pointed out that “class size reduction is more complex than building a lot of seats.” Building new classroom helps, but classrooms need teachers. And teachers, under the current budget plan, will also be in shorter supply.