It’s been a long, confusing summer for principals, teachers and parents trying to understand school budgets. The Adams administration is planning to cut hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding based on declining enrollment in city schools. The cuts have been on and off and on again.
Sources within the City Council who spoke with Gothamist, but who did not want to be named because they feared it would derail negotiations with the mayor’s office, said both parties were back at the table this week to discuss options for restoring funds to schools. The talks come as a lawsuit filed by teachers and parents about how the cuts in the city’s budget were approved continues to make its way through the courts, and as the start of school looms just weeks away.
Here’s a recap of how we got here, and where things stood.
How much money is being cut from schools?
It’s not clear. The city budget includes $375 million in cuts to schools with lower enrollment. Enrollment has declined steeply in recent years, with more than 80,000 fewer students in 2021 than in 2019. Officials have projected another 30,000 fewer students at public schools this fall. While the Adams administration has argued the cuts were necessary to “rightsize” school budgets, they said they would use stimulus funds to cushion the blow, and bring the cuts down to $215 million. That’s the number the administration cited throughout the spring.
However, when principals received their individual budgets in June, they were alarmed to see steep reductions.
Comptroller Brad Lander analyzed individual school budgets and identified a higher total: he said that all of the cuts that individual schools are facing add up to a total of $479 million – much more than what was included in the city budget. He found an average cut of $400,000 per school, though some were upwards of $1 million. A relatively small number of schools are also getting a boost in funding because, unlike the school system as a whole, they’ve seen higher enrollment in recent years.
The education department has confirmed that, in addition to the original $215 million in the budget reflecting last year’s enrollment loss, schools are seeing reductions based on even lower enrollment projected for this fall. The department also tweaked the funding formula for schools, reducing the citywide per-pupil allocation slightly to reflect a lower average teacher salary. Alongside the enrollment reductions, administrators say that a teacher-salary-related decrease of around $25 per-student has made it even harder to balance their ledgers.
Lander and education advocates have called on Mayor Eric Adams to use additional money from the city’s remaining federal stimulus funding to provide more money to schools.
Did the Council know about these cuts when they passed the budget in June?
It’s complicated. Since passing the budget in June, Council members have repeatedly said they were told by education department officials that schools would only see enrollment-based cuts totaling $215 million – and said schools would lose even less than that amount because some of the cuts included fringe costs .
They said they were also told that teachers would “not lose their jobs” because only vacant positions would be eliminated. Gothamist has reviewed communications between the administration and Council that back up this claim. Speaker Adrienne Adams has said the Council was misled during city budget negotiations.
But Council members had months of hearings during which to question administration officials on the record with their concerns. The Council and mayor announced they had a deal on the budget two weeks early, with Speaker Adams saying the state should “take notes” from city lawmakers on reaching an agreement ahead of deadline. Since then, some Council members have apologized for allowing the school cuts to go through.
In response to members’ accusations, Adams administration officials said the Council – which includes many new members – misunderstood a process that happens every year, where teachers are shifted around within the system to fill open roles. Administration officials said that teachers are not losing their salaries, even if they lose their placements at certain schools and have to apply to others.
Some parents and teachers south to stop the cuts. What’s going on with the lawsuit?
The plaintiffs allege that the process used to pass the city budget this year violated state law. Specifically, they say that an education oversight panel, the Panel for Education Policy, was supposed to take public comment and vote on education spending before the City Council approved the budget as a whole.
This year, as has happened in previous years, the schools chancellor issued an emergency declaration to move the process along, and the Council approved the budget in June before the panel voted. A few days later, the budget was approved by the panel. A majority of its members were appointed by the mayor.
Last week, a State Supreme Court judge sided with the plaintiffs, freezing school spending at last year’s higher level and sending the education portion of the city budget back to the mayor and council to reconsider. Education advocates have been hopeful that Council members would vote differently a second time around.
Then, the Adams administration appealed.
This week, an appellate court judge blocked the lower court’s ruling and allowed the cuts to remain in place as the legal challenge continues. A hearing on the case is scheduled for August 29th. That means the legal challenge could keep school funding in limbo for weeks as the new school year quickly approaches. Classes are set to resume September 8th.
What happens now?
The City Council and the Adams administration are negotiating the possibility of adding money back to school budgets. The Council has made its request clear: in a resolution introduced Thursday, it called on Mayor Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks to restore $469 million to school budgets, which is the Council’s own estimate of how much funding has been cut. It also asked the administration to submit updated budgets to the Panel for Education Policy, and provide an accounting of federal stimulus dollars.
The education department’s budget is already the biggest of all city agencies, topping $37 billion.
In the meantime, principals are struggling to finalize their budgets. Some have already let their teachers go, and many of those teachers are seeking new positions elsewhere. Other principals have told Gothamist that they have patched together funding for staffing but have no money left over for enrichment programs or even school supplies.