Manhattan judge signals he will declare NYC Education Dept. budget invalid, give City Council chance to revote

The City Council might get a chance to redo the assignment — on the education budget.

A Manhattan judge said Thursday he’s likely to declare Mayor Adams’ $37 billion education budget unlawful and give the City Council the choice to re-cast its June vote approving the funding that included hundreds of millions in controversial cuts.

The likely order previewed by Judge Lyle Frank during a hearing marks a major victory for the campaign to invalidate the budget cuts. Such an order would have little precedent and opens up thorny new legal, political and logistical questions for the mayor, councilmembers and school administrators.

Some school leaders said they appreciate the groundswell of pushback against the cuts, but worry that any attempt to redo the entire Education Department budget just a month before the start of the school year could introduce more chaos and confusion into an already-stressful period.

“I love the fact that parents and people are getting involved,” said one Manhattan principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But at the principals level, our hands are tied and our faces are smacked.

“We’ve already excessed teachers, (staff) are moving around, it’s late,” the principal added.

Frank signaled in comments from the bench in Manhattan Supreme Court that he agrees with the central claim of a lawsuit brought by activists and educators: That the city violated state law by failing to get approval of the budget from a schools watchdog panel before the City Council voted on the plan.

“The idea [is] that the Panel for Educational Policy should vote first, presumably so the council when they vote has as much info as possible to vote,” Frank said toward the end of the hour-long hearing.

Lawyers for the city did not dispute that the education panel didn’t get a chance to weigh in before the budget vote, but claimed that an “emergency declaration” issued by Schools Chancellor David Banks in late May gave the Education Department legal authority to delay the panel’s vote.

Frank called that declaration “not valid.”

“If it’s called an emergency declaration, it really should be an emergency,” the judge said.

Frank then turned to the question of what to do next.

The plaintiffs asked Frank to declare the entire Education Department budget invalid and give the City Council a chance to re-do its vote. Frank indicated he’s open to issuing such an order, if it can be done “without destroying the city budget.”

The city’s lawyers have pushed back forcefully against a revote, arguing that it would cause chaos in the Education Department. City Law Department attorney Jeffrey Dantowitz said it’s impossible to “divorce one part of the budget from the rest of it.”

But Frank maintained that he is leaning towards an order that would “not require, but authorize them [the City Council] to revote.” He asked both sides for suggestions on wording of the order by the end of the day Thursday and said he plans to issue the final ruling by the end of Friday.

That would likely be the first time in the city’s history that a judge has effectively required a revote on part of the city budget, said David Bloomfield, a professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.

“There are many cases where the city budget was affected by a court decision,” Bloomfield said. “But not where a new vote may be required.”

Laura Barbieri, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said she was “gratified” by Frank’s comments and urged the Education Department not to appeal his decision and “cause further delay before schools have the full budgets they need and deserve.”

Schools chancellor David Banks said the Education Department is still “await[ing] clarity about how the court’s ultimate decision impacts our preparation for reopening this September.” But he said in the meantime, the DOE is taking “action in response to the expressed needs of our schools and families,” pointing to a decision Wednesday to free up $100 million in stimulus money previously earmarked for tutoring and afterschool programs to cover staff.

The City Council voted overwhelmingly to approve the original city budget, which included $215 million in cuts to school coffers.

But protests mounted in the ensuing weeks as the consequences of the cuts became clearer. An analysis revealed that the total cuts were far larger than $215 million. Some City Council members expressed regret about their votes, claiming they were misled. Last month, 41 of the council’s 51 members signed a letter urging Adams to restore the cuts. Before the lawsuit scored unexpected victories, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (D-Queens) and Mayor Adams were in negotiations about possibly restoring $250 million to school coffers.

But even if the City Council does get the chance to re-do its education budget vote, it’s not clear what that would mean for individual schools.

One council source said any increase to the DOE’s budget would result in the city needing to find money elsewhere. Critics have called on Adams to tap the roughly $4.4 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for education that expire in 2025.

The council source added that even if the $215 million cut is restored, there’s “no guarantee” that education officials will distribute the extra money directly to schools.

The city will also almost certainly appeal Frank’s ruling to a higher court.

Meanwhile, principals are stuck in limbo. Many have already made staffing decisions that would be difficult to reverse even if extra money does come in.

“The timeline is really late…some things will get adjusted, but there’s been long-term effects already that are not really reversible,” the principal said.