Court panel says New York schools need billions more

New York Times
Dec. 1, 2004

In a report that could transform New York City's public schools, a court-appointed panel has found that an additional $5.6 billion must be spent on the city's schoolchildren every year to provide the opportunity for a sound, basic education that they are guaranteed by the State Constitution.

Beyond that, the panel found that $9.2 billion worth of new classrooms, laboratories, libraries and other facilities were needed to relieve overcrowding, reduce class sizes and give the city's 1.1 million public school students adequate places to learn.

The report is a major turning point in a lawsuit that could reshape the way education is financed in the state, and is being watched closely by politicians and educators around the nation. Nearly every state has battled over school spending in court, but the case in New York is one of the country's biggest, both in terms of the money at stake and the number of children affected.

Justice Leland DeGrasse, the judge overseeing the case in State Supreme Court, appointed the panel this summer after lawmakers in Albany missed a one-year deadline imposed by the state's highest court to stop shortchanging the city and fix what it called the "systemic failure" of New York's schools.

It is widely assumed that Justice DeGrasse will now draw heavily from the panel's findings as he decides how much more money the city's schools are owed. The state could then appeal, though New York's highest court largely upheld Justice DeGrasse's earlier rulings.

The figure the panel recommended - a 43 percent increase to the city's $12.9 billion school budget - came very close to what the city said it needed. It was almost identical to the amount sought by the plaintiffs in the case and nearly tripled what Gov. George E. Pataki's lawyers had proposed in court. But how much of the money should come from the state or from the city itself the panel did not say, leaving unanswered one of the most daunting and contentious questions facing the lawmakers responsible for coming up with the money. [News analysis, Page B4.]

"We're ecstatic," said Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the group that brought the case on the ground that the city's lack of money, especially in light of the poverty of its students, deprived children of an adequate education. In the 1999-2000 school year, for instance, New York City spent an average of $10,469 per student, state records show, compared with the $13,760 per student spent in the wealthier surrounding suburbs.

"Now," Mr. Rebell said, "we need to roll up our sleeves and make sure the Legislature enacts this reform so that the children can get what they need." The report is a significant step toward a court takeover of what has traditionally been a legislative role: deciding exactly how much money should be spent on schools.

Throughout the 11 years that the case has wended its way through the state's courts, judges have taken pains not to dictate exactly how much extra money should be spent on the city's schoolchildren. But the Legislature essentially forfeited that prerogative by its own inaction, the panel said. "It therefore falls, by default, to the judiciary to fashion an appropriate remedy to ensure that the sound basic education constitutional mandate is honored," wrote the panel of referees, selected by Justice DeGrasse.

Its members are E. Leo Milonas, a former state appellate judge and past president of the City Bar Association; William C. Thompson, a former New York City Council member, state senator and appellate judge, who is the father of the city's comptroller; and John D. Feerick, the former dean of Fordham University School of Law, who was also a president of the City Bar Association.

In its report, the panel called for an unusually aggressive timetable, giving the state no more than 90 days to devise and begin enacting a plan that would eventually put an extra $5.6 billion every year toward running the city's schools. It gave the state four years to reach the full amount, starting with $1.4 billion in the first year, $2.8 billion in the second, and $4.2 billion in the third. The governor has said that the state can eventually raise as much as $2 billion a year from video lottery terminals. How the rest - which would have amounted to an average of an extra $339 on every state income tax return in 2001 - would be raised remains an open question.

The panel also gave the state only 90 days to figure out how to put an extra $9.2 billion towards school construction and repairs, but allowed that money to be phased in over five years. The plan calls for about $1.8 billion in each of the five years.

On virtually every major issue, the panel - which sought dozens of opinions during three months of public hearings - sided with the plaintiffs and dismissed the state's arguments. On the question of running the schools, the state argued that an extra $1.93 billion would suffice, but the panel chose a figure that exceeded what either the plaintiffs or the city demanded.

In fact, the referees said that the governor's methodology was so flawed that when they corrected it, they came up with a number that looked remarkably similar to what the plaintiffs were requesting.

As for school construction, the state argued that it did not need to spend any more than it had been spending. In response, the panel said the state was "refusing to squarely address" the issue and essentially adopted the plaintiffs' proposals whole.

And while the state argued that more layers of oversight would be necessary to ensure that any additional money was well spent, the panel rejected the state's idea to set up a new statewide office that would monitor spending and wield the power to shut down failing schools.

The governor's office called that aspect a particular failure of the report. "We are particularly concerned that the recommendations appear to reject any type of real reform and fail to overhaul the current accountability system, while recommending a substantial infusion of new spending," said Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for Governor Pataki.

Mindful that the report was coming, the governor pushed for a settlement of the case in recent days, but the question of where the extra money should come from continued to be one of the biggest obstacles to a resolution.

Just this week, as settlement talks proceeded, the issue surfaced again. Both the plaintiffs and the governor's lawyers had tentatively agreed to an extra $5 billion a year for the city's schools, according to those involved in the negotiations, but the talks stalled when the state insisted that 40 percent of the money come from city taxpayers.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg refused, arguing that the city should not have to contribute anything more, a position that even the plaintiffs think is untenable. They have argued that the city should pay about 23 percent of the increase.

But the mayor repeated his stance after the report was issued.

"For the city to fund even a portion of this $5.63 billion would require us to cut after-school programs, close libraries and make severe cuts to essential city services, even in the area of public safety," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Such actions would harm the very children this lawsuit is designed to help."

The plaintiffs and the governor's office said that they were eager to continue negotiations. Both parties have repeatedly stated that they want a solution that applies to the entire state, not just to the city's schools, which the courts have focused on. A settlement may be the surest way of achieving that, they say.