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Appeals court rules New York violated state law but doesn’t have to review education budget

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New York lawmakers won’t have to vote on the Department of Education’s budget again, an appeals court ruled Tuesday, overturning a lower court’s ruling loud decision with a request to redo due to a procedural violation.

As a result, more than 370 million dollars were received reduction of school budgets this year will be standing all over the city.

While the judges of the Court of Appeals recognized that city officials violated state law in passing this fiscal year’s budget, they also decided that requiring a new budget vote would cause alarm in “the Department of Education and harm students and teachers.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were disappointed by the ruling.

“Without budget restoration, my daughters will continue to lack arts and music in their schools, and the school I have worked at for over 13 years will continue to lack a full-time music teacher.” – Paul Trust, Teacher and one of the plaintiffs, according to the statement. “With a good foundation in place, I hope that going forward there will be more focus on the school budget process as a whole and the impact of future budgets on individual school programs.”

City officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The original lawsuit gained significant attention over the summer after the City Council overwhelmingly voted to pass a city budget in June that included Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed reduction of three-quarters of schools due to perceived enrollment declines. But after an outcry from families and educators, a majority of City Council members pressured the Adams administration to return those dollars to the schools.

The The lawsuit was filed in July Trust, another teacher and two parents, and then he made his way through the court system.

The court’s decision Tuesday came in response to an appeal filed by attorneys representing the city. Those lawyers challenged a lower court’s August ruling that found the city violated state law and ordered Adams and the City Council to review the education budget. That judge said in the meantime the city would have to return to education spending levels from last fiscal year, which were about $1 billion more than this year because of an influx of federal COVID aid dollars.

But shortly after this decision, the Court of Appeal suspended the order, allowing the reduction to move forward through the appeals process.

Because city council members have shown strong support for rebuilding school coffers, they were expected to push for more education department spending if the court orders them to review the budget.

Laura Barbieri, an attorney representing the parents and teachers who filed the lawsuit, said her clients will decide after Thanksgiving whether to appeal the ruling.

The court’s reasoning is “simply stupid,” Barbieri said.

“I think it wouldn’t be disruptive to faculty and students,” Barbieri said. “They would benefit tremendously if the City Council overvoted and it was just the Department of Health that could be disrupted, and that’s a different type of disruption — I think it’s more of a bureaucratic disruption.”

The original lawsuit alleged that school principal David Banks improperly bypassed the city’s Education Policy Panel (PEP) vote on the Department of Education budget before taking it up the chain. The panel is a board that is mostly appointed by the mayor and votes on contracts and other policies such as school closings.

Banks used an “emergency declaration” to circumvent the commission’s vote, saying there wouldn’t be time for their vote and public hearing before city officials vote on the budget. Previous chancellors have used this declaration at least 11 times in the last 13 years.

During an appeals court hearing in September, several judges on the five-judge panel were critical of Banks, who declared a state of emergency. In the final decision, the judges wrote that the DOE is “simply avoiding its statutory obligations” by repeatedly issuing emergency declarations, bypassing a process designed to foster “maximum public participation and transparency.”

At the same time, they were skeptical that canceling the current budget is a good decision. During the hearing, one judge compared the measure to tying a “tourniquet around the neck to stop a nosebleed.”

Their decision noted that when the PEP eventually voted for the Department of Education’s budget, they accepted it – an argument that came from the city.

It’s likely that many school leaders would appreciate further funding increases, even though it becomes more difficult to hire staff or create new programs as the school year progresses. The city recently decided keep schools safe from ‘mid-year restructuring’ where schools can lose money if they enroll fewer students than expected by Oct. 31.

During the legal process, many school leaders felt they were in limbo. Some previously told Chalkbeat that they would consider hiring more staff or increasing extracurricular activities for students if more money came in.

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

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