After years of complaints, union sues city over class size dollars

The city teachers union, along with a coalition of parents and advocacy groups, sued the Department of Education this morning, charging it with not spending allocated state money on reducing class sizes.

Since 2007, the state has allocated nearly $761 million for class size reduction, yet class sizes in schools across the city have risen over the past two years.

The lawsuit accuses the DOE of causing the class size increase by willfully misusing those funds.

“As far as we are concerned, this is deliberate,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a press conference at union headquarters this morning.

“New York City how has the highest class sizes in New York State,” Mulgrew said. “$760 million, for what?”

The lawsuit, filed this morning in the State Supreme Court in the Bronx, was brought by a coalition of parents, activist groups, the UFT, the New York chapter of the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation.

“The charges are without merit,” DOE Press Secretary David Cantor said.

Class size is one of six areas the state money is supposed to target as part of a legal agreement known as the Contracts for Excellence. The state has allocated the targeted funding since 2007 as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), which charged that the state was underfunding city schools.

(The UFT was not a plaintiff in the original CFE suit, although the union did file a brief in support of the plaintiffs and then-union president Randi Weingarten testified in the case.)

City officials and their critics have been arguing over how to explain rising class sizes in the city for several years. DOE officials have repeatedly said state class size reduction funds have been included in principals’ budgets, but the city’s wider budget cuts have caused principals to reduce teaching staff anyway.

Nevertheless, city officials argue the state funds have prevented class sizes from growing even more.

At the press conference today, Mulgrew disputed that argument, saying a pattern of class size increases began before the fiscal crisis that led to widespread budget reductions.

The city first reported an increase in class sizes last school year, when class sizes in all grades grew by fractions of a point, with the largest increases happening in early grades. This school year, the jump in class size across all grades was substantially bigger.

DOE officials sent out a table today highlighting that average class sizes in all grades except kindergarten have decreased since the 2001-02 school year, the year before Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed control over the school system.

But critics say those numbers mask larger class size increases in many high needs schools. Even before the city’s average class sizes began to rise, a state report showed that more than half of city schools reported increases in either their class size or student-teacher ratios.

Mulgrew also criticized the DOE’s defense that principals have discretion to spend funds on Contracts for Excellence programs other than class size reduction, saying it is Chancellor Joel Klein’s responsibility to ensure the money is spent on this issue.

“You cannot pass the buck,” he said.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who joined the lawsuit’s plaintiffs at the press conference today, said the DOE’s approach to allocating state funds to schools without monitoring how they are used was unacceptable.

“It sounds like a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he said.

A DOE official said that schools with high class sizes are actively instructed to use the state funds on class size reduction, and once a principal commits in their budget to using the funds to hire new teachers, the DOE’s budget system won’t allow them to divert the funds elsewhere.

Plaintiffs said the suit is a last resort after years of lobbying the DOE to properly dedicate the money. Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, one of the plaintiffs, has called on the state to withhold Contracts for Excellence funds until the city commits specifically to reducing class sizes.

UPDATE: This post originally incorrectly stated that Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed control over the city schools during the 2001-02 school year. The original mayoral control law was passed in June 2002 and so took effect the 2002-03 school year; the post has been updated to correct the error.