In a setback to New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ ongoing defense of his school budget, a Manhattan judge on Friday vacated the city’s spending plan for the Department of Education, ordering the City Council and Adams’ office to pass a new, amended budget.
Judge Lyle Frank’s decision in Manhattan Supreme Court sided with the educators and parents who sued the city, arguing that state law was violated when the council voted on the overall city budget without having the education budget first approved by the Panel for Education Policy. The suit comes on the heels of a long, bitter fight and casts further uncertainty on how much money individual schools will have to spend with students set to return to classrooms in September.
“Students, teachers, and parents need finalized budgets to ensure they are on track for a smooth opening next month,” a City hall spokesperson wrote in a statement provided to City & State. “We are disappointed in the judge’s ruling, and will be taking immediate steps to appeal.” Sure enough, an attorney for the city’s Law Department filed a notice of appeal Friday morning. The City Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The City of New York was named as a defendant in the suit, along with the Department of Education and Schools Chancellor David Banks.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the ruling would be implemented. Frank ordered that only the fiscal year 2023 expenditure budget for the DOE would be vacated, and spending levels should be reverted back to fiscal year 2022 level – which would effectively raise the allocation from this year’s $31 billion to last year’s $31.5 billion. But the city’s operating budget is required by law to be balanced, and making any adjustments to the DOE’s total expenditures could necessitate changes to other budget lines.
While parents and educators have decried what they say will gut student programming and cause further learning disruptions, Adams has argued that the cuts reflect declining enrollment in schools and that they were necessary to avoid an impending budget cliff when federal COVID-19 relief runs out in a few years. The allocation of city funds to the budget actually increased year-over-year, but the overall budget was reduced due in part to a decline in federal funds.
However, the judge's ruling doesn’t focus on any of these arguments. Instead, it hinges on the bureaucratic process that preceded the cuts. According to New York law, the Panel for Education Policy must approve education spending before it’s sent to the City Council to join the overall city budget. That never happened this year because Chancellor Banks issued an emergency order in an attempt to speed the budgeting process up.
That move is actually commonplace – the plaintiffs noted that an “emergency” has been declared using the same boilerplate language in at least 12 of the last 13 years. The judge took issue with that, saying the city could have found time to hold a panel vote if it wanted, Chalkbeat reported.
Former City Council Speaker Gifford Miller disagreed with the judge, arguing the annual workaround is necessary. It doesn’t make any sense to have the panel pass the Budget first as it changes in negotiation with the Council,” he tweeted. This is a ridiculous law and an even more ridiculous ruling. The Council and the Mayor should negotiate the budget. Period.”
Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and an education advocate that played a key role in bringing the lawsuit forward, said she’s disappointed but not surprised by the city’s decision to appeal.
“I wish the mayor would take his responsibilities under the law seriously. All we are asking for is for them to follow the state mandated procedures,” Haimson said. “In all the hundreds of pages of appeal papers that they’ve filed, they've never argued that they followed the law.”
The suit came amidst a battle over school funding, with much of the City Council taking the position of criticizing the mayor’s office for mismanagement. In mid July, 41 council members signed on to a letter urging the city to restore school budget funding – a month after the council overwhelmingly voted to approve the budget in a late night vote, weeks ahead of the typical deadline. Some progressive members of the council made the surprising move of publicly apologizing for their role in approving the cuts. Some members of the City Council have indicated they support – and even welcome – going back to the table to reconsider the education budget. Council Members Gale Brewer and Shekar Krishnan called the judge’s decision “a crucial opportunity” for the council to act where the mayor has refused, saying that restoring individual school budgets would prevent teachers from losing their jobs and students’ missing out on key programming like music or art classes.
“The Department of Education deprived the City Council of critical information revealed during the Panel for Education Policy hearing regarding the impending harm to teachers, parents, and students,” they wrote in a letter. “There is no doubt that this information … would have seriously impacted the course of budget negotiations. To this day, the Department of Education continues to shift its accounting, announcing additional cuts and lack of resources in one moment and a ‘new,’ inadequate $150 million for schools in the next.”
Now that an appeal has been filed, Haimson said education advocates will be urging the City Council to open up negotiations with the mayor as soon as possible because resolving the matter will take some time.
“We wish that more council members would speak out in support of the decision and really get moving,” Haimson said. “They’ve had weeks where they sort of sat back and allowed the parents and the teachers to do all the work in filing this lawsuit. Now they should be taking charge and taking ownership of this issue and viewing it as an opportunity to make right what they did wrong before.”
Returning a budget – or even part of the budget – to the City Council would be unprecedented in recent history, especially with school set to resume in roughly a month. Principals need time to finalize their own school budgets and a new budget consideration leaves little time on the table.
The judge also specifically outlined in his ruling that his decision should not prevent the implementation of the city’s program to support students with dyslexia. This, Haimson said, was included because the plaintiffs’ attorneys asked for it after hearing concerns from the parents of students with special needs.
Still, many advocates, families and educators who had been critical of the city’s budget decisions welcomed the ruling and urged Adams to work with the City Council to fully restore funding.
“Supreme Court Justice Lyle Frank is siding with parents and educators by calling for a ‘do over’ vote on the city Department of Education budget,” a spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers said in a statement. “It’s time for Mayor Adams to use the federal education dollars New York City is sitting on to restore the full funding to our schools.”
This story has been updated with comments from City Hall and advocates.