ALBANY — New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the union for public school teachers, has filed a lawsuit against the Cuomo administration, charging its mid-year cuts to school aid violate the state's constitution.
Numerous districts have already laid off teachers and instructional aides in preparation for reductions in state aid.
The Norwich School District in Chenango County, for instance, has already idled 44 of its employees this month in response to the cut in funding from Albany, according to NYSUT.
“Our students and families deserve better than staffing and program cuts just as we begin a new school year with unprecedented challenges,” Andy Pallotta, the union's president, said. “A high-quality education is a vital service that’s central to helping communities thrive."
The Cuomo administration argued the union is distorting the severity of the modifications to school funding. It suggested that NYSUT instead focus on backing its call for a $59 billion relief package from the federal government.
“This frivolous, uninformed lawsuit is just wrong and NYSUT should be embarrassed," said Freeman Klopott, spokesman for the state Division of the Budget.
He added: "There has been no 20% cut to school aid even as we’ve waited six months for the federal government to deliver the resources the state needs to offset a $62 billion, four-year revenue loss.
Klopott also said the state has paid "nearly 100% of funds" due to the school districts.
But in a pivot from earlier statements on the plan to cut state aid by 20%, Klopott noted the Cuomo administration will "take school district need into consideration" with regard to its future actions.
The state's new commitment to weigh the impacts of how such cuts will impact poorer district was welcomed by David Little, director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State.
"To do otherwise would be unconscionable," Little said in an interview. The wealthy districts tend to be less reliant on state aid and tend to be supported by a more vibrant tax base, he noted.
The funding reductions are being felt just as school districts begin a new school year while addressing the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Little said. If forced to slash costs, more districts may end up converting to online classes and laying off staffers who are not teachers, he said.
The filing of the lawsuit came just two weeks before the state is slated to send an estimated $2.5 billion in aid to school districts.
In negotiations leading to the approval of the state budget in March, lawmakers agreed to grant Cuomo the authority to make changes to the spending plans as needed to deal with the fiscal impacts of the public health crisis. Revenue collections have dropped, leading the state to freeze grant money for localities and delay some pay raises for some employees in unions.
The way in which Cuomo's power over spending was fortified was "an unconstitutional delegation of the Legislature's constitutional oversight and policy making powers," according to the NYSUT lawsuit.
Little, whose association is not involved in the litigation, said the move by lawmakers to cede such power to Cuomo amounts to "political expediency" as it allows them to say they have nothing to do with cuts to school districts while they run for re-election.
"I think it's poor public policy, and I don't think it's a particularly courageous approach on their part," he said.
Klopott said the full sums due to school districts this month will be paid by the state.
The plan earlier announced by the Cuomo administration for across-the-board 20% cuts to districts had triggered howls of protest from some lawmakers.
Such reductions would be "devastating" for schools, two lawmakers, state Sen. Shelley Mayer and Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both Westchester County Democrats, said in a statement.
"We are glad that the governor has heeded our call and decided to not withhold the September payment for our schools," the senators said.
So far, an estimated $300 million in assistance has been withheld from districts. According to NYSUT, cutting school aid by 20% would deprive New York schools of more than $5 billion.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com