Announcing $125 Million for Schools, de Blasio Stumbles Over #MeToo

In a gesture intended to highlight Albany’s inaction and his own determination to improve New York City’s schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that his administration would spend an additional $125 million a year on public schools.

But the announcement, in the grand City Hall rotunda with Corey Johnson, the Council speaker, and Richard A. Carranza, the new schools chancellor, by the mayor’s side, was overshadowed by Mr. de Blasio’s suggestion, in response to questions from reporters, that the number of sexual harassment allegations at the education department was inflated because of a “hyper complaint dynamic” at the department.

The reporters were asking about data released by the city on Friday that found 471 sexual harassment complaints at the education department from the start of 2014 to the end of 2017. Only seven of those cases, or less than 2 percent, were substantiated, according to the city.

“It is pretty well-known inside the education department,” Mr. de Blasio said of what he described as a culture of complaint-filing. “It means that on many fronts we get a certain number of complaints that are not real.” (He later tried to clarify, via Twitter, that anyone who brings a complaint about sexual harassment “deserves to be believed.”

The schools funding was intended to narrow the substantial gaps between how much money schools in the city receive. At the announcement, Mr. de Blasio repeatedly criticized Albany for failing to fund schools sufficiently, and said the city was stepping up where the state was not.

The state’s highest court ruled more than a decade ago that Albany needed to spend more on education, but the state has never provided the full amount of money the court mandated. The de Blasio administration says the city is owed $1.2 billion for the 2018-19 school year.

Whether the state is spending enough money on education has become a key flash point in the race between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon for the Democratic nomination for governor.

The city has a formula it calls Fair Student Funding, which calculates how much money each school should receive, based on how many students it has and their needs. Most schools do not get 100 percent of that amount. With the money Mr. de Blasio is adding, all schools will get at least 90 percent of their full funding. It will also raise the average rate at which schools are funded from 91 percent to 93 percent. The average rate at the beginning of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure was 88 percent.

The city said that in order to fund all schools at 100 percent of its formula, it needs the state to fulfill its obligations.

About half of the city’s 1,800 schools will share in the new money, and while the $125 million is significant, it is not a game changer. If every school received the same amount, each would see a boost of about $146,000, but that’s not how the money will be allocated. Funding varies based on enrollment as well as factors like how many students in a given school have special education needs or are still learning to speak English. Schools in the city’s Renewal program, for its lowest performing institutions, are already funded at 100 percent of the formula.

“As a longtime principal, let me tell you this: Every dollar counts,” said Philip Santos, the principal of Leadership and Public Service High School in Manhattan. “We’re already making plans. Leadership and Public Service needs a full-time college counselor, and these additional funds can pay for it.”

The total education department budget for this year is about $30 billion.

After a parade of local lawmakers took their turns praising the new funds and gleefully swiping at Albany, Mr. de Blasio answered questions from reporters, during which he wandered into his statement on sexual harassment. While politically it was undoubtedly a misstep as the country grapples with the #MeToo movement, the mayor, perhaps inadvertently, gave voice to concerns about the way investigations are used as weapons within the city’s schools.

He said, “I’m also trying to be honest about something that is different at D.O.E. than a lot of other places, and it’s a pretty well-known thing in the educational world. Some people inappropriately make complaints for other reasons. I’m not even sure it’s ever about sexual harassment. But it is unfortunately a part of the culture and it has to be addressed separately.”

He went on to talk about “ulterior motives” that might drive complaints in the schools.

In 2017, there were 1,932 complaints of all kinds made against principals or assistant principals to the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigations, the office that investigates corruption and criminal activity in city schools, compared with 870 complaints in 2007. Principals brought in to improve struggling schools can be confronted with a cascade of allegations.

The Special Commissioner’s office has been embroiled in its own turmoil in recent months. The office has long had a degree of independence, but earlier this year, Mark G. Peters, the city’s investigations commissioner, tried to seize control of the unit. Mr. Peters, who was once Mr. de Blasio’s campaign treasurer but is now feuding with the mayor, installed a new special commissioner only to fire her a few weeks later when she pushed back against efforts to limit the office’s independence.

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