With school enrollment plummeting and the city needing to conserve cash for future deficits, Mayor Eric Adams and the City Council nodded at fiscal responsibility last month, slightly paring back education spending. Now this tiny cut is causing chaos.
You’ve got to wonder: If the city can’t achieve this modest trim, what will happen when we have a real budget crisis?
The June budget agreement Adams and the council reached seemed like a good sign for New York’s future: The council is progressive, yes, but it also understands reality.
With public-school enrollment down 6.3% over the past two years — a loss of 73,000 students — the council agreed to Adams’ proposal to pare education spending by $215 million.
Against a $31 billion education budget, the cuts represented about seven-tenths of a percentage point of projected spending.
With Adams’ education department having the whole summer to ensure the cuts didn’t affect the classroom, students and parents in a well-run district would never have even noticed the reduced budget.
It’s working. In mid-July, Speaker Adrienne Adams was among the majority of council members who wrote Adams a letter demanding he “immediately restore” the cuts. Progressive colleagues are now pronouncing themselves “deeply regretful” (Brooklyn’s Shahana Hanif) and “angry at myself” (Lincoln Restler, also of Brooklyn).
All nonsense: Adrienne Adams and her council freely voted for this budget, with full information — and even voted more than two weeks before their June 30 deadline.
With their letter and their appearances at rallies, council members are effectively protesting themselves.
Last week, Eric Adams was on the verge of letting the council go back on its word, reopening the budget to restore the cuts. That would be a bad precedent: Absent an extraordinary crisis, a completed budget, duly voted on, should remain a completed budget.
If Speaker Adams and the progressive caucus had felt so strongly about retaining education funding, they should have picked something else to cut — summer-jobs funding for kids? new homeless beds? — back in June, before they agreed to a spending blueprint for the upcoming year.
A do-over budget would be bad enough. But last week, the fake controversy spurred an even worse precedent: A state judge halted the cuts altogether.
In response to a lawsuit two parents and two teachers filed, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Lyle Frank ordered the city to maintain last year’s level of spending until an August hearing.
Why would a judge have any say?
It has to do with the convoluted way Albany gave former Mayor Michael Bloomberg mayoral control over education two decades ago. The state law allowing such control created a 15-member “Panel for Educational Policy,” which is supposed to vote on budget matters — and didn’t because the mayor declared an “emergency.”
Such “emergencies” have been declared in 12 of the past 13 years — but nobody sued when spending was going up, not down.
Yes, the mayor (and his predecessors) should follow the law and not rely on permanent, ginned-up emergencies. But the Panel for Educational Policy is one of those worse-than-meaningless Albany creations that shouldn’t exist.
The mayor and the council between them provide enough checks and balances against each other to enact an education budget. They are the ones who levy property taxes to pay for city services, and they are the ones responsible for weighing one department’s needs against another’s.
They don’t need 15 other people, most but not all appointed by the mayor, piping up to lament every lost dollar in one department.
It’s not clear that in a real budget crisis, moreover, the mayor could control his appointees’ votes. This raises the risk that the panel repeatedly refuses to endorse future ed-budget cuts, and what would happen then? It’s uncertain.
Seven months into a new administration, then, the mayor’s slouching attempt at fiscal prudence is stymied by his own sloppy reliance on an “emergency,” the council’s refusal to accept the political consequences of its own barely month-old vote and a court’s interpretation of a badly written state law.
Meanwhile, we will soon have teachers who, with an expired contract, are going to want 20% raises over two years, adding close to $3 billion to their $14 billion annual salary bill. That will go well.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.