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Judge upholds pause on hundreds of millions in NYC school budget cuts

The New York City Department of Education headquarters in Lower Manhattan

The New York City Department of Education (its Lower Manhattan headquarters pictured here) may not move forward with school budget cuts for now.

David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

Budget cuts to New York City schools are on hold at least until an Aug. 4 court hearing, a Manhattan judge ruled Wednesday, despite strenuous objections from city lawyers who argued that pausing the cuts would disrupt planning for next school year. 

Judge Lyle E. Frank’s decision keeps in place his July 22 order temporarily blocking the education department from moving forward with hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts to school budgets.

The original order states that the city is “enjoined from any further implementation of the funding cuts” and “enjoined from spending at levels other than as required” in last school year’s budget. 

It remains unclear what practical effect the temporary order will have, as schools received their budgets nearly two months ago, and many have already made decisions to eliminate programs and teaching positions. In the days since the initial order was issued, the education department did not appear to alter school budgets or instruct principals to change spending plans.

“We are happy with this decision and believe the city should take this as a signal and restore school budgets immediately,” said Laura Barbieri, an attorney with Advocates for Justice, the legal organization that filed the lawsuit earlier this month challenging the budget process on behalf of two teachers and two parents.

Barbieri said the ruling does not require schools to undo cuts that have already been made, but they may not make additional ones while the order is in effect.

Amaris Cockfield, a City Hall spokesperson, said the city is “disappointed by the court’s decision today, which will only further delay schools’ preparation for September.” She added: “We are exploring options to minimize the disruption to our schools.”

The lawsuit claimed that the city did not follow the correct budget procedure in part because it was passed by City Council before the city’s Panel for Educational Policy approved it. (The PEP is a board with a majority of members appointed by the mayor.) 

The suit argues that a judge should invalidate the education department’s budget and force a new vote by the City Council. Although local lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the education department’s spending cuts, several City Council members have since expressed regret over their votes as principals have begun eliminating staff positions and public outcry has grown. 

In a court filing, city lawyers argued that the judge’s initial order to pause the spending cuts “would lead to operational confusion at best and chaos at worst” potentially leading to a “domino effect” of staffing changes throughout the system if schools wind up with different budgets from the ones they were given at the beginning of June.

The city claimed that it is “entirely speculative” to suggest that the timing of the PEP’s vote would have altered City Council’s approval of the budget and that council members were aware of the proposed cuts at the time. They assert that the court’s temporary restraining order improperly usurped the power of the mayor and City Council.

The judge’s ruling blocking the budget means that, at least for now, the cuts may not go forward while the case continues to wind its way through the court system. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 4.

Separate from the lawsuit, it’s possible that the funding reductions will be reversed. Mayor Eric Adams is reportedly negotiating with the City Council over restoring a substantial chunk of the cuts. Those talks have not yet yielded an agreement, but the judge’s order pausing the cuts may increase pressure on city officials to strike a deal.

The Adams administration has argued that the cuts are needed to account for reductions in student enrollment, as the lion’s share of school budgets are calculated based on how many students are enrolled on each campus through a formula called Fair Student Funding.

Thanks to an influx of federal funding, city officials did not reduce school budgets during the pandemic even as the number of students in the city’s traditional public schools dropped. Since the 2019-20 school year, K-12 enrollment has shrunk by 9.5%, and officials are projecting further enrollment declines next year.

Schools Chancellor David Banks has argued that school budgets need to be “right sized” to account for enrollment drops, as the federal funding that was used to keep school budgets steady is one-time money.

Beginning next school year, city officials planned to begin that process with a $215 million cut. City Comptroller Brad Lander has said the true cost to schools will be about $150 million more. About 77% of schools are facing cuts, and the average reduction among those schools is 8%, according to an analysis from Lander’s office.

But advocates argue the city should use remaining federal funding to hold budgets steady, as the pandemic has continued to disrupt learning. Cutting staff or eliminating programs, they argue, will hamper efforts to catch students up.

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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