Friday, February 18, 2011

Costly/Benefit Analysis

Nicole Gelinas has one of her usual trenchant analyses of the mayor's budget in the NY Post today, and the education numbers jumped out at us: "This year, city spending jumped 11.5 percent -- even though some departments (including police, fire, sanitation and parks) will see their operations spending fall. Why? First, there's education. The city's own-funds spending on the schools will rise by a whopping 22.8 percent this year -- from $6.4 billion to $7.9 billion. That's because Albany is yanking $1 billion here -- even as the feds, done with stimulus, are pulling back $900 million. But that's a risk that Bloomberg took. This year, New York will spend $22 billion on education from federal, state and city funds -- up from $11.6 billion when the mayor took office."

The NY Post editorialists also weigh in on this today-going after the Bloomberg beg for $600 million from the state: "For one thing, Cuomo didn't cut $600 million in local aid to the city. The money wasn't in last year's state budget, and Bloomberg's claim on it is vaporous. Second, the mayor's budgeteers found enough local cash to fund a 12 percent hike in locally funded spending -- from $44.8 billion to $49.9 billion. This stands in sharp contrast with Cuomo's proposed 10 percent cut in state operating outlays."

And then there's the education outlay specifically: "Even with the proposed teacher layoffs, the Department of Education's budget stands to go up by more than $1.8 billion -- having soared nearly 50 percent since he took office, largely on the basis of a 16,000-plus increase in the number of education employees and dramatically higher teacher salaries and benefits."

Which brings us to the point that we have been making for quite some time-in all of the discussion of the mayor's educational achievements, as it were, there has been little in the way of any attempt to do a cost/benefit analysis. But there should be, because any of the putative gains that have been made in the last nine years have come at a huge cost-and now we are cutting police and fire budgets for education, adding more fuel to the pressing need for analyzing whether or not we are getting a good bang for all of the spending.

Gelinas provides the numbers: "New York City chose, for example, to hike teacher salaries by nearly 50 percent over the last decade and increase the education workforce by 16,360 people. Today, we spend $17,923 per student -- 69 percent more than Seattle and more than twice as much as Houston. For most of that time, the state helped out with extra money -- but it was always a risk that someday the state would pull back, leaving us holding the bag and with no flexibility to cut salaries or lay off less productive teachers.
Now the city is doubling down on its bet. As the mayor put it, "We've moved money from everything else over to education."

Of course, we have been able to raise the college ready cohort of high school graduates to a whopping 23%! Not bad for an increased spending level that now hovers around a 100% increase.

Is this in any way sane, given the mayor's paltry record in the educational area? As Gelinas says-and we concur: "Bad move. The mayor should say that, after having doubled the budget, it's time to make sure we're getting results on what we're already spending..." Which brings us to the person that the mayor has put in charge of all of this money-the truly unqualified Cathie Black.

The other day, Andrea Peyser inveighed against this dumbfounding selection: "In the annals of Really Bad Ideas, a few stand out as stupendously dumb. Bike-lane proliferation. Sen. Al Franken. Charlie Sheen's in-mansion rehab. The installation of Cathie Black to the post of city schools chancellor has devolved over seven weeks into a brand-new category of managerial screw-up. Mayor Bloomberg has to know he made a mistake. Well, mismatching a shirt and tie qualifies as a boo-boo. Hiring Black to run a school system of 1.1 million kids, the nation's largest -- a job for which she is not temperamentally suited, intellectually qualified or, from the look on her scowling face, interested in performing -- is akin, in terms of political trauma, to hiring a BP executive to explain an oil spill."

So, as the Gelinas analysis underscores-at least for us-the city is spending huge sums on education; and bloating the overall municipal budget to such an extent that the mayor's looking to cut essential services. All of which highlights the gap between the image of Bloomberg as a fiscal maven, and the reality of his poor stewardship of the city's finances. As the educational steamship continues to take on more revenue ballast, Captain Black is brought in to steer it forward-compounding an already shaky situation. Is there anything left of the mayor's incredible shrinking reputation for expertise?

We'll give the Post the last word on the Myth of Mike: "But overall city spending during the Bloomberg years has leapt up by fully 57 percent, against an inflation rate of just 23 percent, and there is little in his proposal that fundamentally reverses that trend...Tough times linger, but the document proposed by Bloomberg yesterday is hardly an austerity budget."