Last Tuesday, in a terse opinion, a New York State appellate court handed Mayor Eric Adams a partial win in his effort to cut between $215 million and $469 million in funding to the city Department of Education (DOE). The ruling’s immediate upshot allows Adams to proceed with the existing budget without restoring the cuts, but its wider holding has important implications over future city budget processes and mayoral control of public schools.
In particular, the decision breathed more life into the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), New York City’s little-known body responsible for approving DOE decisions. Barring a reversal by the Court of Appeals, the PEP will need to receive public input and vote on estimated educational funding before the city council votes on the citywide budget. Alongside soon-to-be-implemented changes to the PEP’s composition, designed to insulate it from the mayor, the decision sets the stage for showdowns between the body and the administration before the June 30 citywide budget deadline.
As I have explained, upset teachers and parents sued the city after Adams and the city council enacted a FY 2023 budget in June that contained school funding cuts. Each year, per the state education statute, the PEP must hold a 45-day public-comment period and approve an estimate of future educational funding. Because of an emergency declaration issued by Chancellor David Banks, the PEP concluded its public-input solicitation and approval of the funding estimate only after the city budget was already law. That effectively deprived the public of its right to comment and the PEP of a meaningful vote, according to the plaintiffs. A trial court judge agreed, ordering the Adams administration to restore funding to last year’s levels. Following an appeal, an intermediate court stayed the trial court’s order, pending full resolution.
The appellate court has now reversed the trial court’s order but endorsed its finding of procedural illegality. Banks’s declaration, the court held, was not “a valid exercise of his emergency authority,” adding that the hitherto well-established and unchallenged practice suggested “that the DOE is simply avoiding its statutory obligations.” But despite this violation, the decision did not require the Adams administration to restore funding in this year’s budget. Doing so, the court reasoned, “would ‘have a broad unsettling effect’ on the DOE’s operations and be detrimental to students and teachers alike.” Going forward, however, the city must hold off on passing a budget until the conclusion of the PEP’s 45-day public comment, hearing, and approval process. Plaintiffs have yet to decide whether to appeal.
Adams and Banks intended to wean schools off of temporary federal pandemic stimulus funds. That goal now seems farfetched. True, the mayor doesn’t have to pony up last year’s funding level. But in August, Adams provided schools an extra $150 million in stimulus funding, and earlier this month, he announced that he would not reduce the budgets of schools with lower-than-projected enrollment, a move expected to withdraw around another $200 million from the DOE’s quickly evaporating coffers. After the administration’s first mid-November budget update, which saw spending swell by about $3 billion in mere months, a free hand to trim expenditures will be critical to secure the city’s fiscal health in a tough economy. The appellate ruling will likely stay the mayor’s hand, however, and alongside recent legislative changes signed by Governor Kathy Hochul, it may well presage a soft overturning of mayoral control.
In January, the PEP will undergo changes designed to make it more independent, thanks to a law enacted earlier this year that granted Adams control for two more years. The law will expand the 15-member panel to 23 members. Thirteen of those members will be appointed by the mayor, and of that group four must be New York City public school parents. Neither the mayor nor the borough presidents will be allowed to remove appointees that vote against the administration, inviting teachers’ unions and parent groups to exert influence over panel members.
Armed with this protection and a meaningful funding vote, the reconfigured PEP will be less hesitant to reject educational decisions made by Adams and Banks. State lawmakers and progressive activist groups eager to return control to decentralized school districts and school boards will capitalize on the ensuing commotion. The panel could, for example, withhold its approval until it gets an assurance of no school budget cuts. Knowing that, Adams likely won’t want to touch school funding to balance New York’s precarious finances, despite sharply declining enrollment. Given the charter’s requirement that the city budget be balanced, non-educational programs and agencies will thus bear a disproportionate share of future fiscal burdens.
For now, the administration can claim a court win. But sometimes, tactical victories lead to strategic defeats.
Photo by Wang Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images