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Published in Print: February 23, 2005, as Judge Orders Billions for Schools in N.Y.C.

Judge Orders Billions for Schools in N.Y.C.

State Has 90 Days to Write Finance Plan That Satisfies Court

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A New York judge has given state policymakers until May to craft a plan to add $5.63 billion to the New York City school budget and produce a $9.2 billion capital plan to fix the city’s school buildings.

The order set off what plaintiffs call “one last-ditch” effort to settle a 12-year-old school finance lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York. The case remains unresolved almost two years after the state’s highest court ruled that the state inadequately funds the nation’s largest school district.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity will “make sure that every effort is made to get compliance and not have any more appeals,” said Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the New York City-based group that sued the state on behalf the city’s schoolchildren.

But while Gov. George E. Pataki plans to negotiate with the CFE and legislators over the order, he also said through a spokesman that he plans to appeal the order.

The governor “continues to believe that we need a statewide solution and that these decisions should be made by elected representatives of the people, not the courts, and therefore an appeal will be filed,” Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said in a statement.

Reaching a solution before the court-imposed deadline appears unlikely, according to one education advocate.

State leaders already have a lot on their plate, such as finding ways to finance skyrocketing Medicaid and health-insurance costs and draw up a long-term capital plan for the New York City-area transit system, said Robert N. Lowry, the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“I can’t see the governor and the legislature reaching an agreement on [school funding] in 90 days,” Mr. Lowry said. “I fear that they are apt to say … this is not an issue for this year.”

Mr. Quinn said that the governor’s decision to appeal last week’s ruling should not discourage negotiations. The state and the plaintiffs could “reach a consensus on an agreement” while the appeal is being considered, he said in an interview.

Last year, Gov. Pataki and the legislature failed to respond to a 2003 order from the New York Court of Appeals—the state’s highest court—to ensure that New York City had enough money to provide its 1.1 million students a “sound, basic education.”

Missed Deadlines

That led to last week’s order from New York Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse, the trial-court judge in Manhattan who is overseeing the case.

On Feb. 14, Justice DeGrasse endorsed the recommendations of three distinguished jurists he had assigned to advise him on a solution. That panel suggested that the state should make sure that the city receives a $5.63 billion increase over its current annual operating budget, which is $12.6 billion to be phased in over four years. That represents about a 44 percent increase over its operating budget of state, local, and federal funds.

The panel also endorsed the CFE’s proposal for a $9.2 billion capital program to improve school facilities throughout the city. ("N.Y.C. Schools Require Billions, Judge Told," Dec. 8, 2004.)

Justice DeGrasse, however, did not say he would fine the state for failing to comply with the Court of Appeals deadline last year—a penalty that CFE lawyers had requested. But he did hint that he would fine the state if it failed to comply with the order, CFE lawyers said in a conference call with reporters.

“He’s bending over backward to give the legislature another opportunity,” Mr. Rebell said.

Joseph Wayland, an outside counsel for the CFE, said: “Now that he has an order in place saying ‘x, y, and z,’ if they don’t do ‘x, y, and, z,’ they’ll be held in contempt.”

Such fines may be moot, though, if the state files an appeal. Under New York law, court orders are not enforced while they’re pending an appeal.

Possible Delays

But Mr. Rebell said he plans to argue that the state shouldn’t be protected by such a rule because it has failed for almost two years to fix constitutional problems already found by the state’s highest court.

“There are good arguments why the motion to lift the stay will be successful,” said Mr. Rebell, who has strung together a long list of court victories in the case. ("Winning Ways," Jan. 5, 2005.)

The CFE lawsuit is directed only at the New York City schools, but the group, Gov. Pataki, and most legislators are committed to finding a solution that will aid every district in the state.

“We remain completely focused on reaching a statewide solution that will benefit children in New York City and every corner of the state,” Mr. Quinn, the governor’s spokesman, said in his statement.

Mr. Rebell said his group would lobby for a plan that would provide an additional $3 billion a year for districts outside New York City. Like the New York City aid, the money would be phased in over four years.

PHOTO: Actress Cynthia Nixon speaks out in favor of last week’s court ruling in the state’s long-running school finance case during a press conference in front of City Hall on Feb. 16. She is joined by Michael A. Rebell, left, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, and actress Susan Sarandon, right. A New York judge gave state lawmakers 90 days to craft a plan to spend an additional $14.8 billion on New York City schools.
—Bryan Smith/Daily News

Vol. 24, Issue 24, Pages 23,26

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