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New York City
November 2001

View from the Top
By Jill Levy

 In the early morning of April 1, 1946 there was an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands. Almost five hours later the largest and most destructive tsunami waves ever recorded struck the Hawaiian Islands. There was no warning. Waves of water 54 feet high penetrated more than half a mile into the Big Island.

Thirty years later, New York City was pounded by a financial tsunami that brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy. A growing gap between City revenues and expenses combined with a stagnant economy nearly caused New York to default on its bond obligations. The problem was compounded by a decision not to disclose certain information about the true state of the City’s finances. The nation turned its back on New York City with the jeering headline, Ford to NY, “Drop dead!

Almost a quarter of a century later, after the 2000 presidential election, fiscal and political pressures began to negatively impact our economy. In New York City, public schools were immediately caught in the maelstrom. Now, in the aftershock of the World Trade Center tragedy, economic ripples are quickly turning into a fiscal tsunami.

Today, similarities to 1975 are eerie. Over the past six months consumer confidence has dropped significantly. Many people are experiencing “negative wealth” as their investment portfolios decline and huge job losses occur across the country. After September 11th, the disastrous impacts on the airline industry, Wall Street jitters and the loss of income to NYC have intensified economic uncertainty. The cost of the World Trade Center disaster to NYC has been estimated to be somewhere between $40 and $100 billion. A crisis of this magnitude has not hit our city since the Great Depression.

The origins of this financial disaster were in motion long before September 11th. Unheralded by the media and many legislators, the Mayor’s April budget projections already pointed to a growing sea of red ink. September 11th added to the projected budget deficit. In 1975, the deficit shortfall that brought the City to its knees was $1.5 billion on a $15 billion budget. Today, analysts are predicting a possible $4 to $6 billion deficit on the City’s $39 billion budget. Unlike the unanticipated Hawaiian tsunami, the Mayor is trying to meet this wave head-on by imposing a hiring freeze and budget cuts ranging from an additional 2.5 percent for the Board of Education to 15 percent for other city agencies.

Unlike other city agencies, New York City’s schools were already struggling to overcome previously imposed cuts of $150 million by the Mayor and the “bare bones” state budget piling on another $150 million to be cut. Add to that a $2.8 billion shortfall in the school construction budget and our public schools are no longer able to ride the wave, but are about to be sucked under.

It is going to take more than just belt tightening to stop this educational tsunami. Our city, and especially our schools, are in trouble. If we are going to weather this storm, we need as much support from the State and the Federal governments as they gave to war torn countries in the past and supply to our allies today. In 1975, the City was eventually forced to lay off 60,000 city employees and delay repairs and improvements to the infrastructure. The public schools lost music, art and after-school programs along with the finest professional faculties ever to be found in an urban school system. Twenty-five years later, still suffering with the effects of the 1975 fiscal tsunami, we are being forced to go under again.

In a system that has historically mismanaged its human resources, we will witness the exodus of educational leaders and professionals never before seen in the history of NYC public schools. Businesses will not remain in our city without a highly educated workforce. We will never again be able to attract teachers and school leaders to work in such a devastated public school system. And ultimately – “suffer the little children.”

In 1946, a total of 159 tsunami-related fatalities resulted from the destruction in Hawaii. Many were curious school children who ventured into the exposed reef area, not knowing the receding water to be a sign of an approaching tsunami. Do we have the political will and courage to protect our children and the future of our city? Or, are educational needs to be overshadowed by expedient corporate and political interests? Is education the #1 political issue only when the public and the politicians have nothing else to worry about?

Jill Levy is the President of the Council of Supervisors & Administrators.


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