Group sues to make Albany comply with rulings on city school funding

Campaign for Fiscal Equity files an appeal with the state's highest court

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

By YOAV GONEN

ADVANCE STAFF WRITER

Contending the state budget fails to adequately redress a longstanding shortfall in funding for New York City schools, the advocacy group that originally sued to remedy the problem has filed an appeal with the state's highest court, seeking to force Albany lawmakers to comply with prior court rulings under threat of substantial penalties.

The appeal, filed yesterday in the state Court of Appeals in Albany by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, was based on a recent appellate division decision that, while fixing the amount owed to city schools at about $5 billion, said the courts had no authority to ensure compliance.

"The enforcement is the key issue here," said Michael Rebell, a lawyer representing CFE.

At the heart of CFE's complaint is the state government's additional allotment of only $400 million for school operating expenses in the fiscal year 2006-2007 budget, as well as its failure to formulate a plan to pay the remaining balance within the required four years.

The papers filed yesterday ask for an expedited review within 30 days, allowing for a possible remedy before the legislative session ends in June -- nearly three years after the state first was ordered to restructure its distribution of education funds, in response to CFE's 1993 lawsuit questioning funding for city schools.

"This is the legislative and executive branches defying an order of the judicial branch," said Rebell "This is an unconscionable and untenable situation. Quite frankly, it shouldn't be allowed to go on one more day."

Education advocates, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, cheered a victory of sorts when the Legislature included a court-recommended $9.2 billion in capital construction funding for city schools in this year's budget. They also hailed a March appellate court ruling that affirmed the total owed to city schools at just over $14 billion -- a reaction GOP Gov. George Pataki's office suggested yesterday was inconsistent with filing an appeal.

"We are surprised at the decision to appeal because CFE had declared victory after the appellate court issued its decision," said Scott Reif, a spokesman in the governor's budget division, who added that state attorneys were considering a cross-appeal "to protect the state taxpayers' rights." Such a cross-appeal could once again call into question the sum owed to city schools -- an amount first determined by a court-appointed panel in late 2004 -- despite a series of court decisions upholding the $14 billion figure.

The consistency of those rulings has Rebell convinced that money is not at issue, but rather "whether the court has the authority to direct the other branches of government to take specific steps to enforce its judgments."