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In surprising setback to Mayor Adams, education panel rejects NYC school funding formula

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NYC’s education department headquarters in Lower Manhattan. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy failed to approve the funding formula that dictates school funding levels Wednesday night.

Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

The city’s Panel for Educational Policy voted Wednesday night against the routine approval of New York City’s school funding formula, raising significant concerns about school budgets for next academic year. 

The panel’s rejection, stemming from longstanding concerns that the funding formula is outdated and inequitable, was a stunning setback for Mayor Eric Adams. With nine slots for mayoral appointees, the 15-member panel has generally operated as a rubber stamp for past mayors, but Wednesday night’s vote is the second rejection of administration policy in two months.

A vacant mayoral appointee position on the board may have played a decisive role in Adams’ failing to capture the eight total votes he needed to reauthorize the funding formula. Seven of Adams’ appointees voted yes, the five appointees from each borough president abstained, and the panel’s elected parent member voted no. A 14th panel member was absent. And Adams has yet to replace one of his own appointees to the board who was forced to resign last month after her anti-gay writing came to light.

City officials warned that the PEP’s failure to approve the funding formula could delay funding to schools as they plan for next year, and schools Chancellor David Banks characterized the situation as “deeply troubling.” The board could vote on the formula again next month, but any revisions would need to be posted 15 days ahead of its next meeting, which is May 18.

“This is deeply problematic but the vote has been cast,” Banks said, minutes after he urged the panel members to approve the proposal. “This vote essentially is going to throw some of our schools into a lot of trouble.” 

Wednesday night’s vote was one that happens annually. Education department officials asked panel members to re-approve the city’s Fair Student Funding formula, a 15-year-old city blueprint designed to send more money to schools with larger shares of students with disabilities, those learning English as a new language, and academic struggles. 

But the discussion took a turn when public comment opened up. NeQuan McLean, president of District 16’s Community Education Council, told panel members that he was on a 2019 city task force that had spent nine months coming up with changes to the formula, which has been long criticized for lacking weights for other student groups, such as those living in temporary housing, and sending more money to selective schools that tend to enroll lower shares of Black and Hispanic students. But the task force’s final report, McLean said, was never released by former Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

McLean and other speakers urged the panel to vote no and instead work on improving the formula. Some panel members shared his concern. Even if the panel voted to reapprove the formula, they would still “disenfranchise” students who don’t receive extra weight, such as those who are homeless or in foster care, said Tom Sheppard, the panel’s parent council-elected representative. 

“Will there be some disruption? Absolutely. In the long-term, will we address the needs of our students? Absolutely,” Sheppard said. 

Others supported the idea of approving the formula, then spending time revamping it. Gregory Faulkner, a mayoral appointee, said he encouraged the panel to vote yes, then “come back and really dig in and do the work to really make this formula more equitable.”

Lindsey Oates, the education department’s chief financial officer, said that voting “no” could result in a delay of getting money to schools by mid-May, as officials did pre-pandemic, and could leave administrators to scramble. Oates said a big part of the budget process is “staffing for your school and programming your school,” including figuring out what programming a school can offer and making hiring decisions. 

In 2020, the city released budgets to schools in July, Oates said, which resulted in a “major scramble” ahead of the fall. 

When the department distributes late budgets, schools have had to to delay important decisions, such as hiring, to the summer, when school leadership teams are not meeting regularly, Oates said. 

Nathaniel Styer, an education department spokesperson, said the city is committed to a “full review” of the funding formula. “But that review, for the sake of our students, cannot be rushed in a matter of weeks or months,” he wrote. “We are expecting the panel to come back to this issue in order to prepare for the upcoming school year.”

The vote immediately drew concern from some observers, including Dia Bryant, the executive director of Education Trust-New York, an advocacy group.

“School level leaders have an autonomy in NYC that’s unknown in almost any other district, and this will impact their ability to plan for the summer and the upcoming school year,” wrote Bryant, who is also a former city education department official. “These votes seem to be the result of people feeling unheard and a general misalignment between the needs of parents and families and actions being taken.”

The city’s Panel for Educational Policy is structured to give the mayor control of education department policymaking. But Wednesday’s vote was the second time since Adams took office that the board voted down one of the administration’s proposals. ​At last month’s meeting, an $82 million contract to provide schools with temporary staffing failed 6-5, with two mayoral appointees declining to support the contract. (They approved this contract on Wednesday night following more discussion about it with education officials.)

The PEP has occasionally bucked previous mayors’ wishes, though it is extremely rare. Under de Blasio, Adam’s predecessor, the panel voted against a small number of controversial proposals, including a pair of school closures and a contract that allowed for 4-year-olds to be tested to qualify for gifted programs.

Wednesday night’s vote is the latest in a growing list of missteps in Adams’ management of the PEP.

Adams did not immediately make appointments to the PEP when he took office in January, which meant that the regular meeting did not occur that month, a possible violation of state law. Then, City Hall refused to publicly clarify who had been appointed, even after the PEP began taking votes on policy issues.

Once the mayor’s full slate of nine members was formally announced last month, the Daily News revealed that one of them, Rev. Kathlyn Barrett-Layne, had written that being gay is a sin and equated it with pedophilia. Adams swiftly forced her to resign, though he has not yet named a replacement, a process that is expected to take weeks longer, a City Hall spokesperson said.

Those setbacks come at a particularly delicate moment as the mayor is seeking an extension of his control of the city’s school system. The state legislature has the final authority to grant Adams an extension of mayoral control, which expires at the end of June.

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