With school to resume on Sept. 8, front and center in the minds of many is the fight over the budget for the city’s sprawling system of public schools, which serve about a million children. It has been characterized by exceptional intrigue, accusations of betrayal and obfuscation, reversals and re-reversals and the intervention of a judge. Our civics reporter Felipe De La Hoz has the story.
A declining population
What’s going on? The basics here are that the city has seen declining enrollment in its school systems, with about three-quarters of schools seeing fewer students year-over-year for a total decline of about 9.5% since the start of the pandemic. Some families left the city altogether, some put their children in a growing charter sector, some of it is the product of long-standing declines in birth rates.
Enrollment is a significant part of the formula used to determine school funding across the board and for individual schools. Schools that faced enrollment drops — which, remember, is most of them — had budgets cut in Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed executive budget, adding up to about $375 million in cuts, though the mayor assured the City Council that federal funds would be used to infill some of that, representing a functional cut of $215 million.
Though there was some hand-wringing about this, the Council ultimately approved the budget with those cuts after having sped through the budget process and gloated about finishing ahead of schedule. The trouble was, according to an analysis by Comptroller Brad Lander, the actual cuts would be much larger than the mayor had represented, by a factor of about $150 million. The Council balked and tried to go back to the drawing board, ultimately hitting a stalemate with the mayor over restoring funds.
Parents and advocates sue the city
Meanwhile, a group of parents and advocates have sued the city, claiming that it pushed through the school’s funding process without proper input from the public, specifically focusing on a public entity known as the Panel for Education Policy (PEP). This board is made up of advisors drawn from parents, educators and education experts and appointed by the mayor, and is supposed to approve school budgets before the City Council votes on them.
This year, like in many past years, the schools chancellor, David Banks, used an emergency provision to move the budget process along without the PEP’s formal approval, which is partly a function of how tight the timelines are to figure out the budget. The City Council’s budget process, which can stretch to late June, already happens late enough that superintendents and principals don’t have much lead-in time to digest their new budgets and prepare for the school year, which begins in early September. Additional delays could be chaotic.
Still, the plaintiffs argued that the decision was an overreach and that the cuts would be catastrophic, hamstringing schools’ ability to bounce back from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was measurably detrimental to student progress. New York City already spends more per pupil than pretty much any other large urban center, but the contention is that, if there have to be cuts and pullbacks, this is the worst possible time. In a surprising move, a local judge agreed and ordered the city to trash the budget and make a new one restoring the funding.
We’ll know more next week
The city appealed, an appeals court promptly held the lower court decision, meaning the cuts are back on. There is another hearing in the matter set for Aug. 29, which is about a week before school starts. Needless to say, this is making it extraordinarily difficult to actually plan for the school year, with administrators unsure of their funding levels or whether they’ll be able to hire more teachers or find places to dramatically cut. Given the uncertainty, some legislators are calling on the mayor to simply desist from making the cuts and perhaps have a fuller conversation going into the next budget cycle. So far, no such commitment has been made, and the funding remains up in the air.