The battle over school budget cuts continues in court.
New York City has petitioned the state Supreme Court to “vacate” a temporary restraining order in a lawsuit against the budget reductions granted by a judge on Friday, claiming, in part, that complying with the order will disrupt planning for the coming school year.
The suit was brought by a group of parents and teachers who said that dramatic cuts at their schools are leading to the elimination of arts programs, classroom and other staff positions, field trips, and after school enrichment. Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has said the reductions were necessary to reflect declining enrollment.
Their suit seeks to annul the budget passed by the City Council in June on procedural grounds. It argues that the process lawmakers used to adopt the budget violates the sequence outlined in state law because the education department’s oversight body — which is made up of appointees by the mayor, borough presidents and parents — did not have a chance to vote on the agency’s spending plan until after the Council passed the budget as a whole.
According to the plaintiffs’ claim, members of the Panel for Education Policy are supposed to “review and approve the yearly estimated education budget” under New York education law “prior to” the city Council’s vote.
The suit also claims that city officials misled Council members by asserting that only vacant positions would be eliminated as a result of the budget cuts, which city Comptroller Brad Lander estimated at more than $370 million out of a total Department of Education budget of $37.6 billion.
The plaintiffs are calling on the court to require the Council to reconsider the education budget, followed by a revote on the budget as a whole.
But in the motion filed Monday, the city argues that it’s “entirely speculative” to assume that the Council would have acted differently if the oversight body had voted first. It also claims the plaintiffs waited too long to file their case, and that the scope of the cuts were “clearly known” way back when the preliminary budget was released in February. E
“We will wait until the court responds before saying more, but make no mistake, the budget was duly adopted by the City Council and in accordance with all charter mandated protocols,” said Amaris Cockfield, a spokesperson for the mayor. “We hope the court will grant the city’s application expeditiously so that our schools can continue the necessary work in preparation for September.”
The city’s motion emphasized the restraining order against the cuts will disrupt the plans that principals are already developing based on school budgets as they currently exist, and that a re-allocation of funds would require school administrators too restart that process with only weeks to go before the start of the coming school year.
Now, a New York Supreme Court judge could either side with the city and remove the restraining order, allowing the cuts to remain, or the case could move forward to a hearing scheduled for August 4th with arguments from both sides.
Last week, the Adams administration and City Council appeared close to a deal to restore $250 million to the public schools, but negotiations stalled over the administration’s demand that the Council agree to future cuts to schools if enrollment does not rebound and the state and federal government do not supply more funding.
Sources in the Council said those negotiations are on hold because of the pending legal action.
Many Council members who voted in favor of the budget last month said they regret giving it their support.
“I'm angry at myself that I didn't do more to stop it,” said Councilmember Lincoln Restler at a rally against the cuts last week. “And I'm sorry to every parent, to every teacher, to every student in my community that I didn't step up and fight back the ways that I should have during this budget process.”
Education activists said they are hopeful that the Council will move to restore education funding if given the opportunity.
The legal wrangling is the latest development in the ongoing fight over school budgets. According to Department of Education officials, declining enrollment is the main driver of the budget reductions. They said enrollment has declined by more than 83,000 during the pandemic, and they expect a further decline of 30,000 students this fall.
While not all schools are facing cuts due to enrollment, most are, with an average reduction of $400,000 per school, according to the comptroller office’s analysis, though some are seeing reductions of more than $1 million.
The education department has also slightly reduced the average teacher salary by $500, which was first reported by The New York Post. Teachers salaries are one of many factors in what’s known as the Fair Student Formula, a mechanism used to determine how much funding each school receives based on enrollment and student need.
According to the education department, it’s mainly recent teacher retirements that have brought down the average, and the impact of that change is relatively small, totaling a $30 million reduction spread across the system.
But some principals told Gothamist that the salary reduction had a significant impact on their bottom line, especially as they’ve had to let go of newer teachers in response to the budget cuts, which skews their teacher salaries higher as a result of retaining more experienced staff who are paid more.
Officials confirmed that overall per-pupil spending is also down because the city spent more in federal dollars last year than it plans to in the coming school year.
The city has received more than $7 billion in federal stimulus funds since the start of the pandemic. The money was to be spread over four years and runs out in 2024, but Styer said the stimulus money was purposefully “front loaded” to pay for school reopening needs as well as academic and mental health services.
Under former Mayor Bill Bill de Blasio’s administration, the city used some of its stimulus money to allow schools to maintain the same level of funding over the last two years, despite drops in enrollment during the pandemic. This year, the Adams administration said it would use stimulus money to phase in the impact of declining enrollment. But officials said schools had to start preparing now or risk running into a steeper fiscal cliff when the extra federal money runs out.
Parents, however, argued that children need the resources now to recover from the disruptions and trauma from the health crisis. Some principals have also said that the city’s enrollment projections are too low, causing their budgets to be tighter than they should be.