Manhattan Supreme Court rules city council must revote on education budget

Manhattan Supreme Court rules city council must revote on education budget

“The vote of the New York City Council on the [fiscal year 2023] budget should have occurred after the Panel for Education Policy held its own vote on the budget—which it did not,” Frank wrote in his decision.

The judge said the court cannot determine how much should go back into the the current education budget and said his order allowing a revote is limited to education spending, rather than the entire $101 billion city budget, which took effect July 1. He vacated the fiscal year 2023 education budget and reverted spending appropriations to fiscal year 2022 levels until a revote occurs. FY 2022 levels were $500 million higher, according to the council speaker’s office.

The Education Department on Friday morning filed an intention to appeal, seeking a stay of Frank’s order from the appellate division. If the court doesn’t grant a stay, then the City Council can proceed with the revote, according to Laura Barbieri, attorney for the plaintiffs.

school fears

Friday’s decision is a loss for Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, which argued in court that ruling against the established education budget would “wreak havoc” on the nation’s largest school system.

Education Department affidavits argued that schools have already received budget allocations for the fiscal year, and many transactions are underway, including principals setting school budgets, new teachers being hired, contracts getting registered, supplies being ordered and summer programming taking place. The department emphasized the potential harm a budget freeze or spending reversal would have on the 75,000 teachers and 23,000 paraprofessionals in the city’s education system.

“Freezing or altering budgets now could create a domino effect, with schools attempting to reverse mutually agreed-to transfers and hires of teachers and other staff,” assistant corporation counsel Jeffrey Dantowitz argued in a July 27 affidavit. “The ripple effect of reversing one hiring decision could impact multiple staffs and schools.”

In arguments before the court, the department said interrupting the budget process would threaten schools’ ability to open on time.

Adams has committed to a timely opening.

“Whatever that ruling is, I’m going to follow. We’re going to find out what the judge states, and we’re going to move forward,” the mayor said during an Aug. 4 press conferences. “We’re going to do everything we must to make sure our schools are open.”

Uncertain council

It’s not clear how a revote would proceed.

Several council members told Crain’s that the council is in uncharted territory and that leadership has not communicated a clear plan on next steps.

David Bloomfield, professor of education law at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, and a former general counsel to the city Board of Education, said he has never seen such a dispute in his 30 years involved with New York education. Bloomfield said he believes that an order to invalidate and amend education spending through a full revote puts the entire city budget at risk due to the prominence of the education budget.

“This is a true mess,” he said. “What do you do with a budget where one plank has just been removed by the court? The budget has a lot of moving parts, and this is one of the central parts.”

Fuzzy numbers

One point that could complicate matters further is the nebulous nature of the scheduled cuts to education. Funding is based on enrollment. The Independent Budget Office estimated enrollment in 3-K through 12th grade education has declined by 77,000 during the the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Education Department’s position is that spending should decline by $215 million due to enrollment losses. City Comptroller Brad Lander estimates cuts could reach $469 million with broader enrollment drop-offs. Class Size Matters, an education nonprofit that helped the plaintiffs’ legal case, said the cuts could reach $1 billion based on the enrollment formula.

Councilwoman Shahana Hanif of Brooklyn, co-chair of the progressive caucus, said she intends to ask for more money.

In a July 24 letter to constitute, Hanif said, “$250 million simply isn’t enough to plug this budget gap. I will continue to use my voice and position in city government to advocate for the restoration of the full $469 million that has been cut from our education budget.”

Councilman Shekar Krishnan of Queens said council members and the mayor must act as fast as possible to coordinate a revote. The Education Department must supply the council with accurate spending numbers beforehand, he added.

“We must put all options on the table,” Krishnan said. “But it begins with knowing an honest accounting from the DOE on how much money has been cut from our schools.”

One solution could come from Lander. Friday morning the comptroller argued that the city received more than $800 million excess tax revenues after the budget was passed June 14. There is $4 billion in federal emergency funds sitting in reserve, he said.

“We can still use those funds, so we don’t have to cut school budgets in the fall,” Lander told PIX11. “The council and mayor put $2.2 billion into a rainy-day fund.”

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