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NYC judge maintains block on $200M school budget cut

Indicating he will soon grant an injunction, the judge asked the city to suggest language to ensure the order parses school funds from the rest of the budget.

MANHATTAN (CN) — While keeping in place an order blocking a $200 million budget cut from New York City schools, a judge indicated Thursday that he’s likely to allow the City Council to revote on the education budget. 

Two parents and two public school teachers filed a lawsuit last month claiming that the Department of Education violated procedures by presenting the budget to the New York City Council before it was voted on by the Panel for Education Policy, most of whose members are appointed by the mayor. 

New York Supreme Court Judge Lyle E. Frank granted a temporary restraining order in July that kept the 2021 budget in place for 2022. He stopped short of ruling from the bench on a preliminary injunction Thursday, but said it seemed clear that the education department had breached procedure, and the council didn’t have all of the information it needed for a proper vote. 

“The council may very well have voted the same way. I don't know. I’m not a policymaker,” Frank said. “I think what I would do is to allow — in essence, authorize them to revote.” 

His comments addressed pushback from New York City Law Department attorneys, who said it was mere speculation that the council would have done things differently. 

“It’s speculative,” Frank said, “but I don’t think it needs to be nonspeculative.”  

City attorney Jeffrey Dantowitz held that there’s no charter to allow a revote, and that allowing one would throw off the rest of the budgeting process. 

“You can’t divorce one part of the budget from the rest of it,” Dantowitz said. “It has much, much wider implications.” 

Dantowitz said reverting to last year’s budget, which reflects conditions that may have changed in the past year, would cause “disorder” since other agencies are already planning their spending. 

Frank made it clear he wasn’t aiming to undo the entire budget, but would rule on the education budget alone. He asked Dantowitz, and then the petitioners, to submit wording that would reach that goal. 

The organization Advocates for Justice represents the teachers and parents who filed their suit as a class action. Attorney Laura Barbieri said there is no reason for the budget process misstep except that the education board’s chancellor wanted to skip over the panel vote. 

“This isn’t a misunderstanding,” Barbieri said. “This is a deliberate clouding of what the authority is under state law.” 

After the budget was passed, a supermajority of City Council members urged New York City Mayor Eric Adams to restore school budgets using $700 million in unspent federal stimulus funds. 

“We must close the immediate gap faced by our schools, while working to address the systemic problems with DOE’s school budget policies,” reads a letter signed by 41 of the council’s 51 members, including Speaker Adrienne Adams. 

The letter notes that the $215 million gap in education spending is “barely 0.6% of the agency’s $37.6 billion budget.” It argues that the city underestimated enrollment numbers, which determine budgets, resulting in, according to Barbieri, 700 teachers losing their jobs. 

“DOE’s numbers are not adding up, and it seems to be using the city budget as a smokescreen to evade responsibility for its policies that undermine support for schools,” the letter reads. “Schools should not be required to go through an appeal process to get the resources they need.”

Barbieri said the letter backed up her argument that the council was underinformed when it voted. 

Paul Trust, one of the petitioners and a music teacher who was excessed by the budget cuts, is part of the “scramble” as teachers try to find placement in very few job openings across the city on short notice. 

The budget came as a shock to Trust, who was working on buying new instruments for his students when he got the news. 

Mayor Adams campaigned on boosting education. He discussed better screening for dyslexia, citing his own trouble in school because of the condition, and frequently used the refrain, “If you don’t educate, you will incarcerate,” while running for office. 

“It seemed like he was going to be true to the schools and representing the children, and this came out of left field,” Trust told Courthouse News. 

With the continued restraining order and anticipated injunction, Trust said the City Council has a chance to “right a wrong.” 

“Schools have been underfunded for so long,” Trust said. “They need extra guidance counselors, they need the small class sizes, to flourish.”

Representatives for the mayor’s office did not return a request for comment.

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