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Judge Orders Billions in Aid to City Schools

Susan Notes: As the article observes, this is mixed good news, as we still don't know where the money will come from. So far, the only ones collecting any money on this are the lawyers.



A state judge ruled last night that an additional $5.6 billion must be spent on the city's public schoolchildren every year to ensure them the opportunity for a sound basic education that they are guaranteed under the State Constitution.

Beyond that, another $9.2 billion must be spent over the next five years to shrink class sizes, relieve overcrowding and provide the city's 1.1 million students with enough laboratories, libraries and other places in which to learn.

In his ruling - the latest in a 12-year court battle - Justice Leland DeGrasse of State Supreme Court in Manhattan adopted the recommendations made last November by a panel of lawyers and judges that he appointed. The panel held hearings for several months and ultimately came very close to recommending exactly what the plaintiffs, who sued to compel more money for the city's schools, had asked for.

But the judge did not say how much of the money should come from the state or from the city, leaving unanswered one of the most contentious questions facing lawmakers.

"We're very pleased," said Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the plaintiff in the case. "After 12 years, there's finally a dollar figure. We hope the governor will sit down and meet with us, and with the Legislature. Let's wrap this thing up."

The amount the judge ordered was nearly triple what Gov. George E. Pataki's lawyers had proposed to the court, and the governor's office said last night that it would appeal the decision, though New York's highest court has largely upheld Justice DeGrasse's earlier rulings.

"The governor has worked tirelessly to reach a consensus among all parties that would allow us to ensure that every child in every school across New York receives the first-class education they deserve," said Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for Mr. Pataki. "He continues to believe that we need a statewide solution and that these decisions should be made by elected representatives of the people, not the courts."

The decision is a major landmark in one of the nation's biggest school- finance cases, and may have ripple effects across all school districts in the state. Though virtually every state in the nation has been embroiled in lawsuits over school spending, the New York suit has been more closely watched, in part because of the number of students and the dollar figures at stake.

The ruling is particularly rare because Justice DeGrasse, who has overseen the case since 1993, has now ordered a specific amount of money to be spent on the city's schools. With that step, the courts have moved into a realm that is usually the closely defended prerogative of lawmakers.

Still, the judge noted that more than 18 months has passed since New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, ordered the state to starting fixing the city's schools. Yet lawmakers in Albany have made very little headway toward improving them.

Justice DeGrasse has long said that he would not hesitate to intervene if the state failed to bring the schools to a constitutionally acceptable level, and in his decision he reminded the parties that "the 'wrong' in this case has been ongoing for more than a decade."

Even so, Justice DeGrasse refused to hold the state in contempt of court for not having acted, a penalty sought by the plaintiff, which is a nonprofit advocacy group of educators, politicians and parents. Instead, it appeared that he would give the state a chance to heed last night's ruling before imposing any fines for its inaction. The ruling gives the state 90 days to act.

The $5.6 billion figure cited by the judge represents a 43 percent increase to the city's $12.9 billion annual school budget.

The ruling, however, was not a clear victory for the city, which has said it cannot afford to spend more on its schools and urged the judge to require the state to shoulder all of the extra costs. But Justice DeGrasse, like the Court of Appeals before him, ruled that the Legislature should decide how the burden should be shared.

In that light, while Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg praised the ruling as "another historic victory" for the city's public schools, some officials acknowledged that the ruling was not a grand slam.

Indeed, the city's reluctance to bear any responsibility for the costs of a resolution has proved to be an impediment in previous negotiations. Mayor Bloomberg gave few signs that he intended to back down in future ones, either.

"It is clear that such a solution would be grievously unfair," the mayor said last night. "The wrongs imposed on the city's students resulted from the state's failures, and if new funds are required, the Legislature must make certain that these funds come from all of the state's taxpayers."

To come up with the figures he ordered last night, Justice DeGrasse appointed a three-member panel last summer to wrestle with the complicated question of what it would cost to provide every student with the sound, basic education the Constitution requires.

Throughout extensive public hearings, the panelists repeatedly showed impatience with the state's suggestion that it could sufficiently improve the schools by spending less than $2 billion more a year.

The panel included 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, whose son is 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 their report, the legal referees called for an unusually aggressive timetable, allowing 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. They 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 to raise the rest will most likely be a topic of fierce debate in Albany.

The panelists also gave the state only 90 days to figure out how to provide an extra $9.2 billion for school construction and repairs. The plan calls for about $1.8 billion in each of the five years.

— Greg Winter
New York Times
2005-02-15
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/15/education/15ruling.html


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