An appeals court ruled yesterday that New York City schools were being shortchanged by at least $4.7 billion annually in state aid, adding more firepower to the city's plea for more education money as lawmakers try to wrap up work on a state budget.
From Friday's New York Times
Huzzah! Pop the corks. Get smashed on Snapple! More judges found New York City on the losing end of the education money game. For advocates of the city schools, oh joy.
It's not that easy. It never is. An Appellate Division panel did indeed say last week that the city schools are being shortchanged. But now it's back to the Legislature and the governor, who are obligated to some day make political and budgetary decisions on the matter for the whole state, as Attorney General Eliot Spitzer noted on Friday.
"This is a statewide issue, by the way," Mr. Spitzer, who could easily be the next governor, told NY1 News. "Do not believe it is New York City only."
Take a bow for candor, Mr. Spitzer. If New York City gets more school dollars, all the other cities and towns in the state will line up to get more money, too, and will be have to be satisfied, too the underlying reason for Albany's infamous gridlock, especially on education aid.
For the record, the plaintiffs in this case first sued 13 years ago. The case has been the subject of four major decisions by a justice of the New York State Supreme Court, three by the Appellate Division, two by the State Court of Appeals.
A judicial finding that the city schools rate more education money has been affirmed and reaffirmed by the courts and appealed and re-appealed by Gov. George E. Pataki.
The political establishment in Albany complains that school funding is the job of elected officials, not of the judiciary. But the governor buys time in the courts.
"We've never had a case where we've had a governor and Legislature just blatantly defying orders of the highest courts," said Michael A. Rebell, a lawyer representing the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of parents and community groups that brought the lawsuit in 1993.
After opponents tried to get the case dismissed, it went to trial at the turn of the century. On Jan. 10, 2001, Justice Leland DeGrasse of State Supreme Court in Manhattan issued his decision.
He said that the state's method of financing public schools deprived New York City students of a "sound, basic education," and handed the Legislature the task of coming up with a new system within eight months, or facing judicial intervention.
Then came the appeals, culminating so far in last week's Appellate Court decision, which had something for each side.
The appellate panel made the plaintiffs happy by directing the Legislature and governor to appropriate $4.7 billion to $5.6 billion in operating money for the city schools over the next four years, and about $9.2 billion in capital resources over the next five years.
But the court delighted the governor and the Legislature by leaving to them the determination of precisely how much money will go to New York City's schools, and on what timetable.
IN other words, the matter is right back in the Albany maelstrom, perhaps to be appealed, perhaps not; perhaps to be carried out in some way soon perhaps not.
Does this sound too terribly negative? Consider: Legislative leaders have already gotten into a verbal exchange about the ruling.
The speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who has been fighting for more city school aid, said that the Legislature "better address the matter this year" and noted that the decision specified a spending range.
The majority leader of the Republican-dominated Senate, Joseph L. Bruno, who labeled a lower court ruling for additional city school aid "lunacy" just two months ago, sounded reluctant to move quickly and decisively.
Mr. Pataki, in his last year as governor and dabbling at running for president, sounded characteristically risk-averse as he called the decision fair but did not rule out another appeal.
What's next? As Mr. Spitzer advised: "Fast is good in this case. Delay is the enemy of progress."
Can seasoned Albany watchers be forgiven their skepticism if they foresee more delay?