After a monthslong court battle over the New York City public school budget, a state appellate court on Tuesday allowed more than $200 million in cuts to remain in place this year, even as the justices found that the city had violated the law.
The justices agreed with parents and teachers who claimed that the Department of Education had violated the law when it presented the budget to the City Council before allowing the Panel for Education Policy, a governing body largely appointed by the mayor, to vote on it.
The justices also rejected the city’s contention that the schools chancellor was able to push the budget through as an emergency declaration — something the city said had been done in 11 of the past 13 years. The argument from the city “supports the conclusion that the DOE is simply avoiding its statutory obligations,” the justices said.
However, allowing the City Council to change the budget this far into the school year would be too disruptive and “have a broad unsettling effect,” they said. In addition, the justices pointed out that the Panel for Education Policy did eventually vote in favor of the budget.
“Even if you’re right, the remedy seems so extreme,” Associate Justice Judith J. Gische said during arguments in September, addressing the plaintiffs. “It’s like putting a tourniquet around your neck for a nose bleed. There were so many more efficient ways to handle this that wouldn’t affect the functioning of a very complex school system.”
Laura D. Barbieri, the lawyer who, along with Arthur Schwartz, represents the parents and teachers, said that she and her clients were gratified that the court agreed with them on the issues raised by their case but were disappointed that there would be no remedies to the budget this year. Still, she said, it is encouraging that the courts put the Department of Education and the city administration on notice for the future.
“It only became apparent and horrific when the budget was cut so drastically,” Ms. Barbieri said. “We took notice and found a way to ensure that the law was followed.”
David C. Banks, the schools chancellor, indicated in a statement on Tuesday that he was pleased that the appeals court had not forced officials to revisit the school budget. “We will continue to manage our school budgets equitably and efficiently to uplift every child in NYC Public Schools,” he said.
The fight 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 decline in student enrollment.
During the early months of the pandemic, school funding was largely untouched in the city, with federal aid helping to buoy budgets. But over the summer, the city announced that hundreds of teachers were being let go, or “excessed,” by school principals whose school enrollments dropped, and placed into a districtwide hiring pool. Nearly 77 percent of New York City district schools, about 1,200 out of 1,600 in the system, saw their enrollments decline.
The news led to an uproar among parents, educators and even some of the elected officials who voted for the reduced budgets. In a letter to Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks, the Council called on the Department of Education to use existing funds in its budget to return money to individual schools.
In July, the plaintiffs sued the city in an effort to stop the budget cuts. The following month, a State Supreme Court judge sided with the parents and teachers and said he would cancel the Department of Education budget.
The appellate court decision on Tuesday essentially undid that decision — letting the budget stand — even as the justices criticized the budget process.
Thomas Sheppard, the parents’ representative on the Panel for Education Policy, said in a statement on Tuesday that the ruling sends a message that there are “no consequences for actions that violate the law.”
“There’s nothing right or fair in a decision that allows for the Department of Education to circumvent the law with no relief to students and families whose voices were essentially shut out of the public input process,” he said.
Ms. Barbieri said her clients would take the week over Thanksgiving to think about their next step.
Troy Closson contributed reporting.