The bars on the zoos’ monkey cages are rattling, city unions are on the defensive as the threat of larger layoff cuts loom, and child advocacy groups are bracing themselves for the deep wounds that a $3.4 billion budget gap will impose on core services for the city’s children. Reality is blinding sometimes. It’s difficult to imagine a city, now doused with spring’s vibrant palette, stripped of some of its finest inner clock workings — the fallout of two best- and worst-case scenario city budget proposals that both break the mirror no matter which way you look at them. Even the mayor’s brightest alternative, a $44.5 billion executive budget that relies on $2.7 billion in help from the state that may not at all materialize, includes some of the most dramatic slashes in layoffs and service cuts the city has seen in the past decade. “It cuts out the nuts-and-bolts support that families need to live, work and raise their children, and the heart and soul of city life by closing zoos, reducing access to libraries and park cleaning and recreation programs,” says Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. Even in the luckiest flip of the coin, the Committee has pointed to more than $1 billion in collateral damage, in 2004, to city agencies serving children. At worst, the tally could reach $1.5 billion, the group says. With the reductions proposed in the primary executive budget, some parks, outdoor pools and at least two zoos will close. More than 5,400 layoffs will occur — 3,200 alone within the Department of Education; in fact, if Gov. George Pataki’s state budget plan is passed, the city will take the worst punch on education. Discretionary funds supporting youth programs and after-school organizations will fall under the ax. Millions in reductions will eliminate 864 paraprofessionals in elementary and middle schools, 327 family paraprofessionals and 767 school aide full-time equivalent positions. Non-mandated summer school will be stricken for some students. Nearly half of the city’s child health clinics will close. And keep in mind: This is the best-case scenario. Doomsday comes in the form of the mayor’s $1 billion worst-case contingency plan. It translates into another 10,000 layoffs throughout the various city agencies. At its leanest, it is based on the mayor’s belief that the state’s legislators will revive $750 million in education cuts from the state budget and offer hundreds of millions in additional aid. Although legislative leaders in Albany have vowed, at least conceptually, to restore $1.9 billion in spending to Gov. Pataki’s proposed $4 billion statewide cuts, lawmakers have said that rough estimates of the restorations boil down to about $700 million for education. Typically, New York City receives only about 39 percent of any increase in state aid. So even a Hail Mary by state lawmakers when they begin passing budget bills this month would mean some reliance on the $1 billion contingency plan. And it ain’t pretty. Left to fend for itself, the city’s Department of Education will become the hard-hit victim of Gov. Pataki’s $1.2 billion statewide cuts to school spending. All after-school programs and summer school for all but failing students would be scrapped. At least another 815 school aides would be sent packing. Universal PreKindergarten programs would lose their financing. The entire $89 million the city receives for class-size reduction in grades K-3 would be gone. And the list goes on, and on. All this comes in the midst of one of the boldest efforts the city has ever witnessed on behalf of a mayoral administration to revamp a flailing school system from the ground up. At a time when the mayor and his schools’ chancellor most need the unequivocal support of legislators, labor unions, corporations and advocacy groups to turn the system around, the roof has caved in on the very resources they need to keep the apple cart from toppling. The decrease in state aid to elementary and secondary schools would be the largest in decades, setting the education system back years, according to some education critics. So much for the mayor’s wish list for an overhauled school system. It’s all pretty much gone up in smoke now. But that’s just reality for you — something New Yorkers have come to learn an awful lot about.