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NYSUT sues NY to prevent looming education cuts

The lawsuit seeks the release of state aid that was withheld during the summer and an injunction against further cuts

Gary Stern Rockland
Westchester Journal News

As school districts brace for deep cuts to their state funding, the statewide teachers union has sued the state to prevent the cuts from happening.

The lawsuit by the New York State United Teachers, filed in Albany County Supreme Court, says that 20% reductions in education aid that have been outlined by Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be "devastating," particularly to needier districts that rely heavily on state aid.

The state has already withheld about $300 million from initial aid payments made over the summer.

NYSUT is challenging the constitutionality of the state's executive branch being given the power, as part of the state budget deal, to cut aid mid-year to New York's nearly 700 school districts.

“Our students and families deserve better than staffing and program cuts just as we begin a new school year with unprecedented challenges,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a statement.

Freeman Klopott, spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, called the suit frivolous and uninformed.

"NYSUT should be embarrassed as the facts are clear: There has been no 20% cut to school aid even as we’ve waited six months for the federal government to deliver the resources the State needs to offset a $62 billion, four-year revenue loss," he said in a statement.

"In fact, the State has paid nearly 100% of funds to school districts."

Will school cuts become permanent?

Cuomo has repeatedly warned that state aid to schools and municipalities could be cut by 20% if the federal government fails to pass a massive bailout that would, among other things, help New York close its $13 billion budget deficit.

Over the summer, school districts became alarmed when the state withheld about $300 million in initial aid payments for specific purposes, including pre-kindergarten, school construction and expensive special education placements. At this point, those funds could still be paid.

Klopott said the amount withheld was less than 1% of what's been paid to districts.

But much larger aid amounts are scheduled to be paid between September and December. The payment include "Foundation Aid," the main source of general state education aid that needier school districts rely upon to supplement to local tax dollars.

If Cuomo decides to make budget cuts permanent, including education aid, he would have to introduce a plan for the Legislature to approve.

"We will work with our partners in government to address any remaining gaps in federal assistance and, in the absence of Federal funding, any future actions will take school district need into consideration," Klopott said.

The union sues the state

NYSUT's lawsuit seeks the release of state aid that was withheld during the summer and an injunction against further cuts.

Advocates said if aid cuts do become permanent and reach 20% across the board, New York's neediest districts would suffer disproportionately.

"If a poorer district is heavily dependent on state aid and does not have a lot of money in reserves, their situation is going to be more desperate," said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

He said districts that anticipate losing large amounts of state aid may want to start making spending cuts sooner rather than later. The Albany and Schenectady school districts have already laid off hundreds of employees in response to initial state cuts.

"The longer a district waits to make spending reductions, the harder it is," Lowry said.

Jess Vecchiarelli, an Ossining parent, has for years called for the state to close the equity gap between school districts by more fairly distributing education aid. She said the withholding of aid across the board would only worsen the divisions between affluent and needier districts.

"It's frightening because it's already started," she said. "It will put districts like Ossining and other underfunded suburban-urban districts at a great disadvantage. I don't know how we're going to catch up."

Vecchiarelli said her district had to start the school year with all-remote instruction and has to borrow from reserves to pay for masks, while neighboring Briarcliff Manor has opened schools and can afford masks.

School districts have been warning of cuts to staff and programs if state aid is reduced.

Districts have taken on numerous costs related to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, including June's all-by-mail elections, the purchase of PPE and other supplies and, in needier districts, the purchase of thousands of computers for students without.

At the same time, the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, noted that even if 20% of state aid is cut, New York would still spend the most on education, per pupil, in the country. In 2017-18, New York spent $24,040 per pupil, almost double the national average.

Democratic legislative leaders in Albany support taxing the wealthy to avoid cuts to education, but Cuomo has focused on calling for aid from Washington.

Andrew Van Alstyne, director of education and research for the state Association of School Business Officials, said that districts that rely the most on state aid are in a terrible bind, especially if state aid cuts extend beyond this year.

"If we have multiple years of cuts, that would threaten viability for a lot of districts," he said. "Right now, federal stimulus (money) for the state is the single most important thing for educational equity."