Court leaves budget cuts for New York schools

After a month-long court battle over New York City’s public school budget, a state appeals court on Tuesday allowed more than $200 million in cuts this year, despite judges finding the city had broken the law.

The judges agreed with parents and teachers who claimed the Department of Education broke the law by presenting the budget to City Council before allowing the Education Policy Board, a governing body largely appointed by the mayor, to vote on it.

The judges also dismissed the city’s claim that the school chancellor was able to enforce the budget as an emergency declaration — something the city said has been done 11 of the past 13 years. The city’s argument “supports the conclusion that the DOE is simply circumventing its legal obligations,” the judges said.

However, allowing the city council to change the budget so far into the school year would be too disruptive and “has a broad unsettling effect,” they said. In addition, the judges noted that the Education Policy Panel eventually voted in favor of the budget.

“Even if you’re right, the remedy seems so extreme,” Assistant Judge Judith J. Gische told plaintiffs during September’s arguments. “It’s like putting a tourniquet around your neck when you have a nosebleed. There were so many more efficient ways to deal with this that wouldn’t interfere with the functioning of a very complex school system.”

Laura D. Barbieri, the attorney who represents the parents and teachers along with Arthur Schwartz, said she and her clients are pleased that the court agreed with them on the issues raised by their case, but disappointed that there was no remedy would give in the budget this year. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the courts have given the Ministry of Education and the city government a notice of default for the future.

“It only became obvious and frightening when the budget was cut so drastically,” said Dr. said Barbieri. “We’ve taken note of that and found a way to ensure the law is upheld.”

David C. Banks, the school’s chancellor, said Tuesday in a statement that he was pleased that the appeals court did not force officials to review the school’s budget again. “We will continue to manage our school budgets fairly and efficiently to empower every child in NYC public schools,” he said.

The battle between Mayor Eric Adams, the city council, and teachers and parents began when the city approved more than $200 million in cuts to public schools, which it attributed to a drop in student enrollment.

In the early months of the pandemic, school funding in the city was largely unaffected, with federal aid helping to bolster budgets. But over the summer, the city announced that hundreds of teachers had been fired, or “transferred,” by principals whose enrollments were declining and included in a countywide hiring pool. Nearly 77 percent of New York City county schools, about 1,200 out of 1,600 in the system, saw a drop in enrollment.

The news caused an uproar among parents, educators and even some of the elected officials who voted for the cut budgets. In a letter to Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks, the council asked the Department of Education to use existing funds in its budget to pay back money to individual schools.

In July, plaintiffs sued the city to stop budget cuts. The following month, a state supreme court judge sided with parents and teachers and said he would cut the Department of Education’s budget.

Tuesday’s appeals court decision essentially reversed that decision — left the budget in place — even as judges criticized the budget process.

Thomas Sheppard, the parents’ representative on the education policy panel, said in a statement Tuesday that the ruling sends a message that there are “no consequences for actions that break the law.”

“There is nothing right or fair in a decision that allows the Department of Education to circumvent the law without exonerating students and families whose votes were essentially excluded from the public submission process,” he said.

Ms. Barbieri said her clients would take the week over Thanksgiving to consider their next move.

Troy Closon contributed reporting.