New York City’s retiring schools chief, Carmen Fariña, used her final appearance before state lawmakers on Wednesday to blast some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposals.
She said Cuomo’s plan to limit the state’s spending on charter schools would shift $144 million in costs to New York City. And she called his proposal to subject local school budgets to state review “disrespectful” and a “violation of the principle of local control.”
Even as Fariña took a few final swings at the governor — who regularly spars with Fariña’s boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio — a chorus of lawmakers thanked Fariña for her more than 50 years working in and eventually leading the nation’s largest school system.
Still, they pressed her on some sensitive topics for the de Blasio administration, including school safety, the city’s school-improvement efforts, and the mayor’s closed-door process for hiring Fariña’s replacement.
Here are some of the highlights from Wednesday’s hearing:
A “disrespectful” proposal from the governor
In an agenda-setting speech last month, Cuomo questioned whether districts like New York City are giving poor schools their fair share of funding — and said state officials should begin reviewing their budgets to make sure they are.
On Wednesday, Fariña and others ripped into that plan.
“To add another bureau of people who are going to look at paperwork that will probably never be reviewed,” she said, “I would say it’s fundamentally not necessary and it’s also, to some degree — you know, I’m leaving I can say this — disrespectful.”
Some lawmakers — including Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, the education committee chair — made it clear they agree with the chancellor. Nolan said it is “miraculous” that state officials think they can review every school district budget.
Even State Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who would be in charge of reviewing local budgets under the governor’s proposal, said she is “very concerned” by the plan and that budgets should be a “local decision.”
However, at least one lawmaker sided with the governor.
Senator Catharine Young, a Republican who chairs the finance committee, noted that the state provides New York City with a large chunk of its school funding — about $11.4 billion of the city’s $30.8 billion education budget.
“I think that requiring transparency and accountability…isn’t a sign of disrespect,” Young said. “It’s a sign of respect to the taxpayers who are funding the schools.”
A charter school funding proposal that would “take us backwards”
Fariña also pushed back against changes that Cuomo proposed to the way charter schools are funded.
The state currently provides the city with $1,000 per charter school student, in addition to other school funding. Under the governor’s proposal, the city would have to start paying that supplemental amount beginning in the 2019-20 school year, according to officials from the Independent Budget Office.
In addition, Cuomo hopes to limit the amount the state spends on charter schools located in private space. Currently, the state helps the city pay for any charter-school rental costs that exceed $40 million. Now, the governor wants to cap the amount the state covers at $10 million.
The combined changes would cost the city $144 million — a small but significant portion of the city’s school money, Fariña said.
“That would really, absolutely, take us backwards from the amount of successes we’ve been able to do in the last four years,” she said.
The chancellor search can’t be “done by committee”
Though many lawmakers praised the outgoing chancellor, she still received a few tough questions.
Fariña was asked about the city’s costly “Renewal” school-improvement program, which has yielded mixed results — not the rapid improvement Mayor Bill de Blasio promised when it launched. She defended the program, saying real improvement takes time.
“For any of you who have any knowledge of education,” Fariña said, “you don’t turn schools around on a dime.”
Lawmakers also asked Fariña about the search for her replacement, which has been done without public input — to the chagrin of some parents who want a say in the process. Again, she stuck to the city’s position during questioning, even though de Blasio himself called for the process to be public while he was running for mayor.
“I believe strongly that the selection of the chancellor…cannot be done by committee,” she said. “I’ll be very honest about that.”