PARK SLOPE — An unexpected enrollment drop is creating serious budget problems at a Park Slope school this year, costing one teacher her job and forcing the school to run a deficit to keep another educator.
P.S. 124 on 14th Street and Fourth Avenue was expecting 300 students this fall, but only 278 showed up, said Principal Annabell Martinez.
The sudden decline set off alarm bells for Martinez because school budgets — and teacher hiring — are based on how many kids are expected to enroll.
"Registers drive the budget," Martinez said. "If you don’t have the children, you don't have the money and you can't support the salaries in your school."
One kindergarten class had just 10 students; another had 12. The school found itself facing a $126,000 shortfall in a total budget of about $1.6 million.
After a flurry of calls and emails, Martinez discovered the reason behind the drop.
For the past five years, P.S. 124 has taken in "overflow" students from crowded P.S. 94 and P.S. 169 in Sunset Park. This year, unbeknownst to Martinez, an annex was created for those students in another building so they never showed up at P.S. 124.
But the school had already hired the teachers and staff to cover those students.
A Department of Education spokesman said the changes that created the enrollment drop were discussed at a public hearing in January, and the DOE released a document explaining the change.
“We conducted multiple forms of outreach," spokesman Harry Hartfield said.
Nonetheless, Martinez was caught off guard. The budget crunch forced her to lay off an English as a Second Language teacher, and she combined three kindergarten classes into two.
But she couldn't bring herself to eliminate a beloved pre-K teacher's job. Parents were "outraged" to the point of tears over the possible loss of the teacher, who has been with the school for seven years and is "worth her weight in gold," Martinez said.
Both Martinez and parents thought the teacher's departure would be too jarring for her youngest students.
"You can't do this to children three weeks into school, especially to 3- or 4-year-olds," Martinez said. "They already have separation anxiety. The whole social and emotional adjustment for them is huge."
Instead of letting the pre-K teacher go, Martinez took another course. With the support of parents and leaders in P.S. 124's school network, Martinez decided to run the school's budget in the red this year and keep the pre-K teacher.
Martinez said the decision was "very difficult." She's already worried about how the school will pay back the money next year.
"We still have expenses," Martinez said. "I still need materials, I still need postage. It comes down to simple things. I have to be able to make copies and have ink in my copy machine. It's not frivolous stuff."
PTA president Jim Newman said parents were "very pleased" that the school is keeping the pre-K teacher, but now "we must deal with the budget deficit — which will impact supplies, field trips, extra educational activities and the like," Newman wrote in an email.
He added that parents were already researching new fundraising ideas.
The unexpected enrollment decline is unusual in Park Slope, where other schools, such as P.S. 321, are bursting at the seams. P.S. 124 isn't as high-profile as P.S. 321, but it scored an "A" on its latest School Progress Report, and Inside Schools praised the small school's "warm, family-oriented" environment.
Martinez said the school's dire financial situation has a silver lining. The budget crisis galvanized parents, who are now committed to recruiting more students to P.S. 124.
"We're going to be fine because we have a strong school community, and I know this is going to rally more people to be supportive of what goes on in this little school," she said.