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Lawsuit filed to halt hundreds of millions in NYC school budget cuts

NYC Chancellor David Banks stands at a podium, with Mayor Eric Adams standing off to the left behind him.

Mayor Eric Adams, left, joins Chancellor David Banks, center, for an announcement in June.

Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office

Two New York City parents and two teachers filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to overturn the City Council’s approval of the city budget, which cut hundreds of millions of dollars from school budgets for this upcoming academic year. 

The lawsuit — filed against New York City, the education department, and schools Chancellor David Banks — claims that city officials failed to follow the proper protocols before elected officials voted on the the final budget, which took effect July 1. 

They are asking for a court to invalidate the adopted budget and require the City Council to reconsider and vote again. While they await a hearing and a final decision, the plaintiffs also want a temporary restraining order on implementation of the budget cuts, and city schools funded at the same levels as last fiscal year. 

If allowed to vote again, it’s likely the City Council would push to reverse the cuts. 

Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams, said the administration increased its portion for the education department’s budget for this fiscal year.

Overall, however, there is less money because of declining federal stimulus aid.

“While enrollment in public schools dropped, the city has maintained the unprecedented commitment to keep every school from every ZIP code at 100% of Fair Student Funding,” Allon said in a statement after this story initially published. Fair Student Funding is the formula that funds the bulk of school budgets.

“We are reviewing the lawsuit,” he added.

The lawsuit comes as pressure has built around the budget cuts, which are a result of declining projected student enrollment. The cuts impact the pool of money that schools use to hire staff and build out programming for children. Principals are reportedly excessing staff and changing or cutting programming as they plan next year with smaller budgets. Lawmakers, parents, teachers and advocates — and even former Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’s running for Congress — have been pushing the city to backfill cuts with a portion of the remaining $5 billion in federal COVID stimulus funds.

Adams and Banks have resisted those calls because they want to ease in budget cuts over the next few years if enrollment continues to drop, as it has by 9.5% since the start of the pandemic. 

Cuts to schools were publicized and even a sticking point last month before a budget deal was reached between Adams and the council; however, all but six City Council members voted to approve it. Amid the recent pressure, most of City Council is now calling for Adams to restore the cuts and add more funding to school budgets using federal stimulus dollars. 

In February, Adams announced his intention to cut school budgets by $215 million for the 2022-2023 school year. Comptroller Brad Lander said the cut is steeper – by about $150 million more — which officials have said is due to an even deeper projected enrollment drop. Officials revealed last week that they’re expecting K-12 student enrollment to drop by another 30,000 students, or 3.8%, next year. 

But the lawsuit claims that the city skirted proper protocols by failing to allow the Panel for Educational Policy, or PEP — a largely mayoral appointed board that approves major contracts and policies — to approve the department’s estimated budget before it went to City Council for a final vote.

“We’re not telling the DOE how to make decisions at all,” said Laura D. Barbieri, an attorney with Advocates for Justice, the firm that filed the suit. “Instead, we are talking about a simple procedural mistake.”

On May 31, Banks issued an “emergency declaration” that temporarily declared the budget approved for 60 days, or until the PEP’s approval. He said there was not sufficient time to hold a required 45-day public comment period before schools were notified of how much money they would receive and before the City Council needed to adopt the budget. The city budget must be approved by July 1. Delaying this process, Banks wrote, would have a “harmful effect on the operation of schools.” 

Previous chancellors have issued similar declarations a dozen times since at least 2010, the lawsuit found, based on documents available on the education department’s website. 

The lawsuit also claims Banks did not cite an adequate reason to call such an emergency declaration. The PEP voted on the budget in late June, two weeks after the City Council had already adopted it, “depriving the City Council of the benefit of the public hearing, public comments, and vote” by the PEP, the lawsuit argues.

While the lawsuit makes a “coherent case” over whether the city violated certain procedural rules, it’s not likely they will stop the city’s budget from moving forward because it could bring the entire financial plan to a halt, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Grad Center, who was general counsel for the former city board of education. 

One issue is that previous chancellors have declared emergencies for many years without, seemingly, any problem, he said. 

“It seems to me that obviously, a court can’t go back in time and declare all these other actions illegal,” Bloomfield said. “The way I would put it in legalese: the pattern and practice that has been in place for many years makes the petitioners’ argument more difficult to carry. I’m not saying that it can’t carry, but there’s a tendency, I think, on the part of the court to allow the political process to go forward – and particularly here, where the stakes are so high in restraining the budgetary approval.”

Barbieri argued that the matter isn’t political, but rather one related to the common public interest of public education.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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