After listening to hours of impassioned testimony and not a few lectures from students and others that they were shirking their responsibility, the School Reform Commission adopted a stripped-down budget by a vote of 4-1 Thursday night that its own members called unconstitutional and inadequate.
The $2.39 billion operating budget eliminates nearly everything from schools except a principal and a minimal number of classroom teachers. Counselors, librarians, sports, secretaries, support staff, music and art? All gone.
Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky voted no, declaring that he was not confident that the SRC had done everything it could to avoid passing such a budget and that its passage would send a message that it was somehow doable and acceptable.
"I’m forced to consider what are components to school being a school, and this budget eviscerates ... some of the things essential to schools being school," Dworetzky said. "Wherever the line falls between a school and not a school, what's being proposed here is very close to the line."
The other commissioners voted yes, saying it was their legal obligation to pass a budget before May 31. SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos reiterated that it would be irresponsible to assume revenue that the District wasn't guaranteed while expressing hope, if not confidence, that it would get more revenue before school opens in September.
"In no public-sector budget I was ever involved in other than the School District would a public body assume revenue that hasn’t been proposed by its funders," Ramos said. "You don’t budget according to what you wish you had."
All the commissioners except Sylvia Simms commented about the budget before voting. Dworetzky, who joined the meeting via phone, said that he thought it was reasonable to assume some additional funding would be forthcoming and some savings achieved. "I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume nothing will come of requests," he said, for more money from the city and state and labor concessions.
Commissioner Feather Houstoun said she was "hopeful" that additional funding would come through, but cautioned that the grim assumptions underlying the District's budget could also potentially get worse. She said that the SRC had to avoid the "temptation" of approving a budget that assumes more revenue than it actually has.
"Everyone is terribly unhappy with the situation we are in," she said, "and whatever any of us feel, it is nothing compared to what people in our schools and children in our schools must feel."
Commissioner Wendell Pritchett said that he was voting yes on the budget "only because we are constitutionally mandated, not because I think it's constitutional." He said that one of his children had been involved in the protest outside District headquarters.
"We must all work together to demand that the state and city provide adequate resources," Pritchett said. "If that does not happen, we are certainly going to need to pursue many other avenues before schools open in September."
What those avenues might be is unclear. As commissioners voted, several activists who had remained for the entire four-hour SRC meeting shouted down the commissioners with words like "shame."
The budget includes more than $670 million for charter schools and $280 million for debt service -- the consequence of not just borrowing for capital expenses but interest on a $300 million loan necessary to balance the budget during the current school year. The interest on that is $22 million annually for the next 20 years.
In addition to its operating budget, the District has said it anticipates receiving roughly $430 million in grants and other funding next year, pushing its total anticipated spending to $2.8 billion. But that total figure represents about a 13 percent reduction from the current year, partly a result of sharp reductions in federal aid.
Hundreds protested outside and inside District headquarters before and during the meeting as the SRC prepared to consider the budget that Superintendent William Hite has repeatedly described as “catastrophic” and woefully inadequate to provide what students and schools need.