New York

Lawsuit upending NYC school budget faces critical court hearing

A lawsuit cobbled together in just a few weeks by advocates, parents and educators outraged by Mayor Adams’ budget cuts to city schools faces a high-stakes hearing Thursday that could result in a court-ordered do-over.

The suit, which argues that the city’s entire budget is invalid because of a procedural misstep, has won a remarkable string of early victories — starting with a July 22 temporary restraining order blocking the Education Department from further cuts and ordering spending to return to last year’s levels.

Schools Chancellor David Banks called the ruling “disastrous,” saying it will stall key initiatives of the new administration and throw the department’s $37 billion budget into chaos.

Supporters, meanwhile, are hopeful the cuts — estimated to range anywhere from the hundreds of millions to more than $1 billion — could actually get reversed.

“I was honestly pleasantly surprised,” said Tamara Tucker, a Harlem mom and plaintiff in the lawsuit, of the early victories in the case. “I’m over the shady politicking behind closed doors that doesn’t engage or involve the community.”

The lawsuit faces its biggest test yet in Manhattan Supreme Court. Judge Lyle Frank will consider whether to extend the restraining order — or even take the extraordinary step of ordering the City Council to recast its vote on the budget.

Legal experts say that’s still a long shot, but that the plaintiffs have momentum on their side.

“At this point, bottom line, I think the plaintiffs have a good hand,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of Education Law and Leadership at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, who noted that even if Frank declines to order a re-vote on the budget, the plaintiffs may have enough leverage to force a favorable settlement revising the budget.

The idea for the lawsuit emerged from a conversation in late June between long-time education advocate Leonie Haimson, and Patrick Sullivan, a former member of the city Panel for Educational Policy.

Sullivan pointed out the city seemingly violated state law by adopting its budget before allowing the panel to approve the Education Department’s spending plan, which it ultimately did later that month.

“I said Leonie, they can’t do what they just did. Let’s make an issue of this,” Sullivan recalled.

Haimson contacted Laura Barbieri, a veteran litigator and former prosecutor who once faced down the Cali Colombian drug cartel and now focuses on education law. Barbieri agreed to take the case pro bono.

Barbieri and Haimson argue that the city’s decision to skip the education panel denied the public an opportunity to comment on critical education spending decisions before lawmakers voted on the budget.

“I believe they [the Panel for Educational Policy] are the last bastion of public participation written into the law and fear they are not utilized in the way the state contemplated,” Barbieri said.

Barbieri launched a three-week scramble to find plaintiffs who met legal standards to bring the case.

One of the plaintiffs, veteran music teacher Paul Trust, lost his position this spring after his school’s budget was cut. He decided to speak up after “watching my kids teary-eyed and hugging me and dumbfounded about how this could be happening,” he said.

Barbieri sued on July 18. Four days later, in a sparsely-worded ruling, Frank — who previously made headlines for slowing the city’s controversial plan to shift health insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of retired city workers — barred the DOE from proceeding with the cuts. The judge ordered a temporary return to last year’s spending levels.

Banks called the language “vague, sweeping” and “extraordinarily difficult to interpret,” arguing that in practice it requires the Education Department to grind spending to a halt.

Barbieri and the plaintiffs dispute that claim, arguing that the DOE has purposefully played up the disruption caused by the order to strengthen its legal arguments.

But they say they’re still sympathetic to the immense disruption principals are experiencing — and hope the final result will justify the bumpy ride.

“My motivation in participating in this suit is trying to make the situation better,” said Tucker. “Obviously right now it’s not better, but I believe if this means getting some money back in schools, it will be worth it in the end.”

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