CITY HALL — City Council leaders lashed out at Department of Education chief Dennis Walcott Tuesday over the layoffs of hundreds of school employees during an unusually heated showdown at a Council hearing Tuesday.
Despite a last-minute deal reached over the summer between the Bloomberg administration and the teachers’ union that averted thousands of planned teacher layoffs, the city cut 672 non-teaching staff positions including school aides, family workers and parent coordinators Friday.
It was the single biggest firing in any city agency since the mayor came into office.
The City Council, which signed off on this fiscal year's budget, said it was never informed that the layoffs would include other school personnel than teachers.
“Nowhere in the executive budget did you say you would lay off school aides!” Finance Chair Domenic Recchia Jr. shouted at Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott as he waved copies of the most recent city budget documents in the air.
“You didn’t tell us!” Recchia added, saying that the Council could have saved the jobs if it knew they were on the chopping block. “You ambushed us and it’s not right!”
The DOE said Tuesday that the cuts, which affect workers almost entirely represented by the DC37 union, are expected to save the city about $28 million this year.
But councilmembers pointed out that the city will now have to pick up the tab for their unemployment benefits.
In addition, they said the vast majority of those laid off are women and minorities, who earn an average salary of less than $20,000 a year.
"You have to do everything you can to save these jobs in our communities," pleaded lower Manhattan City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who said the cuts will drive up poverty as well as hurt schools.
“These workers are vital to schools and students," agreed Upper Manhattan City Councilman Robert Jackson, who chairs the Council’s education committee, and said that high-needs schools in neighborhoods like Washington Heights will suffer the most.
“I am outraged about this, because to me it feels like our children are pawns in a political game,” he said.
Chancellor Walcott and other DOE officials rebutted the accusations, arguing the layoffs were not outlined in the budget because they came after teacher layoffs were averted in the late-June deal.
At that time, the mayor’s office and the City Council issued a joint press release that said 1,000 “non-pedagogical,” non-uniformed city workers were expected to lose their jobs, but did not specify which ones, the chancellor said.
Walcott explained it was then left up to principals to decide how they wanted to implement cuts, with cuts to school aides, family workers and parent coordinators among the available options.
“Let me be clear. No one is pleased to lay off workers,” Walcott testified, telling the Council that the loss of employees “has weighed heavily upon me personally.”
“Unfortunately we have a very difficult budget reality,” he added.
DC37 executive director Lillian Roberts, who testified after Walcott, also ripped into the administration. She argued the cuts were “unnecessary” and accused the DOE of pushing through the layoffs as punishment for the union’s refusal to tap into a union health fund during the summer’s budget negotiations.
“We’re here today to right a terrible injustice,” she said, before asking the council to restore the funding and rescind the layoffs immediately.
“Their careers, their families and the education of the children of New York City became collateral damage in a calculated, political maneuver by Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” Roberts testified, adding that the DOE failed to work with the union or consider alternatives, such as furloughs and reductions in hours — a charge that DOE officials deny.
“That’s just fiction that’s out there. That’s not the case," insisted Walcott, who said the DOE sat down with union officials numerous times to discuss potential alternatives but felt they were “unacceptable.”
“We have not targeted any particular union at all,” he said.
The City Council does not have the authority to rescind the layoffs, according to a Bloomberg spokesman, who said the administration is not considering reversing its decision.
Last week, the Mayor's Budget Office put agencies on notice they should expect more cuts later this year.