A New York State Supreme Court judge has continued a restraining order that prevents the city Department of Education from making cuts to public school funding—indicating that he believes the budget process violated state law.
Judge Lyle E. Frank did not issue a formal order Thursday, but asked lawyers for language that would allow lawmakers to reconsider the city education budget. He is expected to rule on Friday.
Frank’s decision to continue the temporary restraining order comes in a case filed by a group of parents and teachers two weeks ago challenging the cuts. Frank first granted a temporary restraining order on July 22nd.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit want to see the city budget canceled on procedural grounds. They say state law requires the city’s education oversight panel to vet and vote on school funding before the overall city budget gets passed.
This year, the budget passed before the oversight panel had a chance to weigh in. The plaintiffs also claim city officials misled councilmembers about the extent of the cuts. They’re calling for the City Council to reconsider education spending and hold a revote on the budget as a whole.
In response, the Adams administration argued that the city budget was appropriately scrutinized, plaintiffs took too long to file their objections, and annulling the city budget would “severely disrupt” and “cause great disorder and confusion” in operations.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have asked for a reconsideration of education spending only, arguing that it was the education piece of the budget that did not follow the approval process outlined in the law. They have suggested that school funding should remain at last year’s higher levels while the legal process plays out.
In the hearing Thursday, Frank zeroed in on the procedural element of the plaintiffs’ challenge.
Schools Chancellor David Banks had made an “emergency declaration” that allowed the City Council to move forward with an agreement on the budget before the oversight panel, the Panel for Education Policy, had a chance to vote on education spending. State law calls for those steps to happen in reverse order.
Frank questioned whether it was valid to substitute “that part of the budget with a piece of paper” and said he is “constrained to say it is not.”
He seemed to favor annulling the budget and returning education spending to lawmakers and “the political process.”
The judge asked attorneys on both sides for examples of language that would allow a reconsideration of the education spending without “destroying the budget, which is not what I want to do.”
The judge asked the attorneys to respond by midday Friday, and said he would rule soon after. If he sides with the plaintiffs, he is likely to order a preliminary injunction on the cuts until lawmakers can revote on the budget.
The plaintiffs were optimistic and celebratory.
“I’m hopeful that schools will get what they need,” said Paul Trust, a plaintiff and a music teacher who said he lost his job at PS 39 in Brooklyn because of the budget cuts. “Because schools have been underfunded for so long. … They need the extra guidance counselors, they need the smaller classes to flourish.”
Time is running out for principals to finalize staffing and programs before the new school year begins on September 8th. Practically speaking, it is not clear when money would be released back to schools, even if the judge does call for funding to revert to last year’s levels.
Trust said he is currently interviewing for other positions. “I’m not sure if I accept a position and my principal gets her budget restored and says ‘Hey we’d love to welcome you back,’ I’m not sure I’d even be able to do that.’”
On Wednesday, Banks and Mayor Eric Adams offered some relief for principals grappling with tighter budgets: they can now use $100 million in federal stimulus funds earmarked for “academic recovery” like tutoring to help pay for staff salaries.
Also on Wednesday, Adams administration officials announced that $50 million would be distributed to schools that had appealed their budgets; officials said the money would be going to schools that needed the additional funding to pay for mandated services. The department said $34 million of the $50 million now available for appeals would be available to schools immediately.
“The truth is that the city is facing a 120,000 drop in student enrollment,” Adams said in a statement, emphasizing that the loss in enrollment has “clear budget implications.”
“We always said we would meet the needs of our students, and after hearing from principals and other community leaders that they need additional time to adjust to the decline in enrollment, we are announcing greater flexibility in this year’s school budget,” he said.
But multiple principals told Gothamist that they were still waiting to hear whether their appeals had been granted. And while they appreciated the ability to put academic recovery dollars toward staff positions, several said it would not be enough.
Multiple city council members said in a statement that it’s misleading for the DOE to claim that the additional funding will have a significant impact.
For example, they argued, providing flexibility in the use of stimulus money is not the same as providing more money to schools that have faced deep cuts or restoring funds that have been cut.
“The Department of Education continues to pull the wool over the public’s eyes,” Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Finance Committee Chair Justin Brannan and Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph said. “Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks need to stop this charade that harms our students, and restore the funds that they have taken away from schools – not by a fraction but in full.”
The cuts were first announced in February, when the mayor’s proposed budget outlined that schools with declining enrollment would see their individual budgets reduced by a total of $215 million. Officials said that amount could have been even higher. Based purely on enrollment, schools were set to lose $375 million, but the administration opted to use federal stimulus money to phase in changes to funding over two years and soften the blow.
When principals received their budgets in June, they were started to see just how deep the cuts were. According to City Comptroller Brad Lander, schools are facing net cuts totaling $372 million—far more than what the administration had initially said. The average cut to a school is $400,000, the comptroller said, with some facing reductions that total $1 million.
As the legal battle continues in court, the new school year is rapidly approaching. Principals have just a month to finalize staffing and programs.
After two years of anxious and chaotic reopenings during the pandemic, administrators had hoped this summer would be smoother. Instead, the fight over budget cuts has created a new level of uncertainty and anxiety.
Schools have lost classroom teachers, arts instructors, social workers and school aides. Angry parents have dogged the mayor at events across the city to plead with him to restore funding.
Many parents and educators argue that the positions and programs being cut from schools are essential, especially given the trauma and disruptions students have faced over the past two years. They are calling on the administration to put more unspent stimulus money toward schools.
On Monday, Lander announced an analysis by his office found the city had enough surplus revenue and unspent stimulus money from the fiscal year that ended in July to keep funding public schools at consistent levels, despite enrollment declines.