(CN) — Several New York teachers unions sued the state in the Albany County Supreme Court on Tuesday after New York withheld $5.2 billion budgeted to help elementary and secondary schools operate.
Six hundred thousand members of the New York State United Teachers joined several other unions in calling the move “unconstitutional, illegal, and a violation of the separation and distribution of powers under the New York State Constitution.”
As a result of the budget cuts, Yonkers City Schools cut its universal pre-K program and laid off 36 teachers. The Schenectady City School District cut 120 teaching positions, firing 15 recently hired teachers, as well as 50 lunch monitors and 280 of the district’s 376 paraprofessionals.
“In the midst of this pandemic and unprecedented upheaval in New York’s public schools districts regarding their operations, their delivery of services, and their financial burdens, as well as those of their teachers and support staff, the state has withheld and announced it will continue to withhold essential state funding to public schools,” the 23-page lawsuit states.
New York has remained in a state of disaster emergency since March 7, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To date, the state has confirmed 450,000 cases of Covid-19 and lost 32,655 people to the disease. On average, 703 people tested positive for Covid-19 every day over the last week.
New York closed schools to in-person learning on March 16 until Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo authorized schools to reopen, as of Sept. 4, following the guidance of the state’s Department of Health.
Whether the schools open for in-person education or remain remote, the state still requires schools to provide meals and childcare for frontline workers.
In his budget, Cuomo gave the state budget director — an unelected political appointee — the authority to withhold “appropriated state aid to localities based on budget imbalances attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
According to the lawsuit, Division of the Budget Director Robert Mujica broke the law when he reduced the schools’ budgets because neither the legislature nor the governor are able to make legal changes to the budget after it has been voted into law.
The Legislature appropriated $27.2 billion for the “general support of public schools.”
As part of the package, the state was scheduled to cover public school districts’ contribution to the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System on Sept. 15 and is expected to distribute $2.5 billion in aid on Sept. 30.
The unions point to $2.5 billion in the state’s rainy day reserves, as well as $4.5 billion in cash reserves and monetary settlements that more than cover the shortfall.
The New York Division of Budget called the lawsuit frivolous and a distraction from the real issue: Washington.
“There has been no 20% cut to school aid even as we’ve waited six months for the federal government to deliver the resources the state needs to offset a $62 billion, four-year revenue loss,” said Freeman Klopott, press officer for the state Division of the Budget. “The state has paid nearly 100% of funds to school districts. We will work with our partners in government to address any remaining gaps in federal assistance and, in the absence of federal funding, any future actions will take school district need into consideration.”
The teachers’ unions ask the court to declare the withholding of the budgeted $5.2 billion unconstitutional and order the director of budget to release the funds.
The teachers’ unions are represented by attorney Robert Reilly. The New York State United Teachers did not immediately respond to requests.