De Blasio defends $900M teacher payment freeze amid union fury

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Facing a ferocious union backlash, Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted in an interview Friday that he had no choice but to freeze $900 million in teacher back pay due to coronavirus budget restraints.

He made the comment during his weekly WNYC radio spot with Brian Lehrer, when a caller who identified himself as a retired city educator said it “seems like the teachers are always the ones who bail out the city.”

De Blasio stressed that the payments were not cancelled outright and would be issued at some indeterminate point.

“Here was something we could do to stave off a crisis and stave off layoffs —  to withhold that payment,” he said. “Obviously people should get that money eventually but we can’t afford it right now given that nothing else has come to support us.”

The dispersal was due to be issued this month and stemmed from union negotiations between 2009 and 2011.

“It is the city’s desire to avoid the necessity for layoffs, and to make a retroactive payment at this time would therefore be fiscally irresponsible,” First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan wrote in a letter to Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers.

Arguing that teachers had a right to money they had already earned, Mulgrew angrily blasted the freeze and his union began arbitration proceedings with the city Friday.

De Blasio highlighted that the city has been battered by $9 billion in lost revenue due to the coronavirus shutdown and said that state and federal authorities have failed to replenish municipal coffers.

“We’ve said we’re not in a position to make that payment right now, the union invoked immediately its right to go to arbitration, they do have that legal right and that arbitration is happening immediately,” he said. “The arbitrator will decide what happens with those payments that is the legally binding right of the arbitrator.”

De Blasio was also quizzed Friday on his rationale for closing schools in COVID-19 hot zones even if they don’t have any coronavirus cases.

Frustrated parents at shuttered private and public schools in these areas have ripped the city’s approach, arguing that they should only be locked down if cases actually materialize.

While he acknowledged minimal COVID-19 cases in city schools, de Blasio said the shutdowns were necessary to guard against wider outbreaks in areas with serious upticks.

“That means shutting down activity across the board,” he said.

De Blasio reported that 2,155 staffers were tested at 44 public schools in hot zones and that only 3 people tested positive for the coronavirus.

“So we’re not seeing spread in schools, we’re not seeing any unusual number of students or staff anywhere in the city testing positive,” he said.

De Blasio speculated that the closures could end in a matter of weeks if infection rates in impacted areas stabilize.