Officials are clashing over projected broad 20 percent cuts to New York’s education budget after the state teachers union filed a lawsuit against the state Wednesday, challenging the executive authority behind budget officials’ anticipated spending reduction amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
New York State United Teachers filed the 25-page lawsuit in Albany County Supreme Court over reductions in state school aid for districts across New York, seeking money withheld in July, August and September and a legal order barring future delayed school funding payments, according to a release from NYSUT.
“Time is up,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a statement. “With the loss of state funding driving cuts at the local level in districts around the state, we can’t just keep waiting for action at the federal level to fund our schools. At this point, a lawsuit unfortunately is the necessary next step to compel our leaders to do what’s right: Fund our future and stop these cuts.”
The union argued the state Division of Budget began withholding 20 percent of selected local aid payments in June, citing the first quarterly Fiscal Year 2021 state budget update.
Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the budget division, said NYSUT lied in its “frivolous” and “uninformed” suit, as the state has not imposed a 20% cut to education and noted the state’s projected revenue loss over the next four years.
“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 fact, the state has paid nearly 100% of funds to school districts.
“NYSUT should stop with the nonsense and lies, and focus on Washington and the federal funding we need, not distract attention,” he added.
The state has withheld a fraction of 1 percent, or about $300 million of the $75 billion in total school revenue, according to state Budget Director Robert Mujica. Roughly $8.1 billion of the state’s $26.4 billion of school aid for this fiscal year has already been paid.
“We are glad that the governor has heeded our call and decided to not withhold the September payments for our schools,” according to a joint statement late Wednesday afternoon from Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D- Yonkers, and Senate Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer, D-Port Chester.
“These 20% cuts would have been devastating.”
Educators, advocates, teachers and Capital Region Democratic lawmakers rallied outside the Capitol on Thursday, demanding Cuomo and the state Budget Division fully fund education as several of the state’s 713 school districts eliminated scores of faculty and staffing positions, especially in poorer, inner-city and smaller rural districts due to New York’s estimated $14 billion revenue gap and nearly $30 billion budget shortfall over two years.
Leaders threatened 9,000 layoffs in New York City last month if the cuts go through. Hundreds were laid off in Albany and Schenectady city school districts, with another 116 in Syracuse, 54 in Copiague and 44 in Norwich losing their jobs, according to NYSUT.
A 20 percent cut “could be catastrophic, and certainly would lead to a ‘gross and glaring inadequacy,’” Pallotta said.
“Our students and families deserve better than staffing and program cuts just as we begin a new school year with unprecedented challenges,” Pallotta said. “A high-quality education is a vital service that’s central to helping communities thrive. It’s about time it was funded like one.”
States and local governments across the nation have significant financial issues and anticipate steep budget cuts to offset unprecedented coronavirus spending and impact to local and state economies.
“We all are waiting to see what Washington is doing,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday. “If the federal government does not step in, you’re going to see mass chaos among states and local governments across the country. I think it could trigger a national economic recession. I think that would be a terrible mistake.”
Direct federal relief to states and localities is more likely if Democratic nominee Vice President Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 election against President Donald Trump, Cuomo said.
“If Washington doesn’t act on this in Congress, then tell me what happens in November — that’s going to be all the difference in the world,” he added. “If Trump wins in November, I think you’re going to see state and local governments truly hurting. If Biden wins, I think you have a very different outcome because Biden has said he believes there should be a relief package.”
NYSUT’s suit challenges the constitutionality of the state Division of Budget’s executive spending authority as part of this year’s budget process, according to a release from the union.
State Republican representatives have repeatedly challenged Cuomo’s broadened authoritative powers and spending decisions, expanded in a March 7 executive order declaring New York’s indefinite state of emergency during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The unconstitutional powers have led to cuts that deprive students of their right to a sound basic education under the state Constitution,” according to NYSUT. “The executive branch’s budget reduction authority violates the separation of powers in the state Constitution and is an unconstitutional delegation of the Legislature’s constitutional oversight and policy-making powers.”
Union representatives have advocated for revenue-raising solutions to help fund public education, including taxes on New York’s ultrawealthy.
Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, and member of the Assembly’s Education Committee, said the state must limit expenditures to address withholding education funds or projected 20% cuts while officials wait on federal coronavirus relief for U.S. states and local governments.
“New York really does not have a revenue problem,” Walsh said. “I think New York has always had a spending problem.
“...I really feel for the poorer school districts that really rely on state aid.”
Walsh does not support measures to raise tax revenue amid the pandemic. Advocates have increased pressure on representatives to institute a wealth tax on New York’s millionaires and billionaires, or legalize mobile sports betting or recreational marijuana to help close the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall.
“You call them revenue raisers —they’re taxes,” Walsh said. “I’d rather look at where we can make adjustments in our expenditures.
“We’re in a lot of ways in very uncharted territory,” she added. “We have to keep an open mind if we do have to raise revenue. I hope we don’t.”
NYSUT’s suit encourages the state to use about $7 billion in reserves and settlement funds to avoid widespread education cuts.
The state Budget Division is expected to release a spending reduction plan for lawmakers to review this month, or before the start of the fourth quarter.
Cuomo is focusing on securing federal relief instead of seeking other revenue sources, he said Wednesday.
“You have to see where you are in Washington,” the governor said. “If we don’t get help from Washington, it’s going to be an economic, catastrophic situation for the state.”
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.