Law & Courts

As Lawmakers Stall, N.Y. School Aid Case Gets ‘Special Masters’

By David J. Hoff — August 11, 2004 2 min read
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A New York judge has appointed three eminent lawyers to oversee the state’s stalled effort to comply with a court order to increase spending for the New York City schools.

The “special masters” will work with state officials and plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which resulted in a decision by the state’s highest court that the state was inadequately financing the nation’s largest school district. (“Court Orders New York City Funding Shift,” July 9, 2003.)

Justice Leland DeGrasse of a trial court in Manhattan appointed the special masters on Aug. 3—four days after the state failed to meet the deadline set in the 2003 court order to fix school funding—and gave them until Nov. 30 to report back to him.

The latest development leaves open the possibility of a statewide solution to the court’s mandate to give New York City enough money to provide a “sound basic education” as called for in the 2003 decision.

Gov. George E. Pataki will continue to seek a legislative solution to the court order while working with the special masters, said Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for the Republican governor.

A lawyer representing the plaintiffs said that the court proceedings might even yield a statewide school funding solution, rather than one narrowly focused on New York City.

“Whatever we present will be in the context of ... the reforms needed in the state and how it should affect New York City,” said Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a New York City-based legal advocacy group that brought the case against the state. “For all practical purposes, we’re going to treat it as a statewide issue.”

Even though the special masters will seek an approach to the school funding dilemma, their participation may push the state’s political leaders to agree on a solution, Mr. Rebell said.

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So far, state politicians have been unable to break the gridlock to find a remedy.

Mr. Pataki has proposed increasing state school aid across the state by $4.5 billion over the next five years. More than half the new money would go to New York City.

In late July, the Republican-led state Senate passed a five-year plan to add $5.2 billion in state aid.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly, meanwhile, approved a bill in June to raise education spending by $6.1 billion over five years and create a $2.2 billion capital-spending program.

During a late-July special session called by the governor to seek a solution, Mr. Rebell said, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and legislative leaders made progress in hammering out details of policies that would build a new statewide accountability system.

But the legislative leaders and school advocates never made much headway on the financing questions, he said.

The three lawyers appointed by Justice DeGrasse last week will now moderate that debate. The special masters are John D. Feerick, a former dean of Fordham University’s law school, and two former state appeals court judges, E. Leo Milonas and William C. Thompson.

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