New York City’s teachers union is suing Mayor Eric Adams in an attempt to halt nearly $550 million in school budget cuts, according to legal documents filed Thursday in Manhattan Supreme Court.
Adams is violating a state law barring the city from decreasing its contribution to schools when the city’s overall revenue doesn’t go down, the United Federation of Teachers’ lawsuit argues. Revenues went up by $5 billion last year, the union claims.
The “draconian” cuts, the suit further claims, will infringe on students’ constitutional rights to a “sound basic education.” Three teachers and a speech therapist joined the suit as plaintiffs, outlining how they lack resources and supplies for their students, especially those with high needs.
The suit asks a judge to order the city to restore its funding of schools to last year’s levels.
It is the second legal challenge from a municipal union in the last two weeks seeking to stop the cuts. DC 37, the city’s largest public union, sued over the cuts last week.
“The administration can’t go around touting the tourism recovery and the return of the city’s pre-pandemic jobs, and then create a fiscal crisis and cut education because of its own mismanagement of the asylum seeker problem,” said union president Michael Mulgrew. “Our schools and our families deserve better.”
The city’s law department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Adams sought to downplay the conflict when asked about the lawsuit during an unrelated press conference Thursday morning.
“The UFT, they have to represent their members,” Adams said. “From time to time, friends disagree. Sometimes … it ends up in a courtroom.”
Lawsuit ramps up pressure on Adams
Adams has argued for months that the city is facing a fiscal crisis due to unanticipated spending on the influx of more than 150,000 migrants and asylum-seekers since last summer.
But critics of the cuts, including Mulgrew, have countered that the city is overstating how much the city will spend on the new arrivals. The administration’s claim that the city’s response to the increase in migrants will cost about $11 billion over the next two years is an “unverified estimate,” the lawsuit claims. The Independent Budget Office and the city’s comptroller’s office have projected lower costs.
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The city routinely projects budget deficits that are ultimately erased plugged by higher-than-anticipated revenue, Mulgrew argued in a recent op-ed. That’s what happened last fiscal year when the city collected $8.3 billion more than projected in tax revenue, he said.
The move to file a legal challenge represents a significant escalation in the union’s efforts to reverse the cuts, which were originally announced in September and formally rolled out late last month.
Adams ordered all city agencies to find savings of 5% in the November cuts. Additional rounds of 5% cuts are expected in January and next spring, bringing the potential total losses to the Education Department north of $2 billion.
The November cuts, which totaled $547 million, slashed the city’s universal pre-K and 3-K programs, its free summer school program, and its community schools initiative.
Chalkbeat recently learned that the city was quietly targeting cuts in District 75 programs for students with complex disabilities. Staffers said they are facing budget cuts far greater than the $3 million reduction outlined in the November plan. People familiar with the discussions said the planned cuts in District 75 total about $97 million and could jeopardize extracurricular programs, supplies budgets, and the jobs of paraprofessionals.
Those cuts “threaten these schools and the 26,000 students, many of whom have complex disabilities” and “will exacerbate significant staffing and resource shortages,” the suit alleges.
An Education Department spokesperson previously said the agency was doing everything possible to shield schools from the impact of the cuts, and that District 75 schools were undergoing a normal process of reconciling actual enrollment with projections.
Suit hinges on claims of funding misuse
That higher-than-anticipated revenue is at the center of one of the legal claims in the union’s lawsuit.
The suit cites a section of the state education law that “prohibits the City from reducing spending in its schools from the level provided in the preceding year unless overall City revenues decline,” according to legal documents.
The city allocated $14.5 billion to schools in last year’s budget, and $14.1 billion in this year’s, according to the suit. That amount will fall to $13.9 billion if all the cuts go through, the union claims.
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Union lawyers also allege that the city is misusing a historic influx in state aid, which has increased by about $1.3 billion in recent years after the state’s fully funded the Foundation Aid formula.
Because of the city’s budget cuts, the Education Department will have to tap state funds to support programs. But state law requires the city to use any increases in state aid to “supplement” what the city is spending on education, rather than “supplant” it, the lawsuit argues — meaning that the Adams administration would be violating this provision.
Three teachers and a speech therapist also joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs, sharing their experiences to illustrate how the cuts could be in violation of a “sound basic education.”
Miriam Sicherman, a third grade teacher at Manhattan’s Children’s Workshop School, has six Spanish-speaking migrant students, four of whom are not literate even in Spanish.
Without any additional resources from the Education Department, the lawsuit claims, she is “essentially running three classes within her third-grade class to accommodate and teach the migrant children with severe educational needs alongside her other third-grade students.”
Rebecca Lopez, a teacher at P.S./M.S. 279 in the Bronx, “cannot afford basic equipment for her high-needs and disabled students or curricular materials for her class,” according to the suit.
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.