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Teachers union threatens lawsuit over state funding cuts

New York’s largest teachers union is planning to file a lawsuit against the state if Gov. Andrew Cuomo and members of the state Legislature don’t release funds withheld in recent weeks from school districts, some of which have had to lay off hundreds of employees as a result.

New York State United Teachers said Wednesday that it’s preparing a constitutional challenge against the state if that funding isn’t restored to districts as the school year begins.

Cuomo has warned for the last several months that, without billions of dollars in aid from the federal government, the state will be forced to make cuts of up to 20% to school districts, hospitals, and local governments. Those cuts are now starting to be rolled out.

The federal government has not come to an agreement on another round of stimulus funding, and a majority of Republicans in Congress remain opposed to providing a significant infusion of funding to state governments.

Andy Pallotta, the president of NYSUT, said the cuts will disproportionately affect high-needs districts that already struggled to fund operations before the pandemic.

“We quite literally can’t wait any longer for action,” Pallotta said. “In the absence of the federal government finally doing what’s right, the state needs to step in and prevent the decimation of our public education system at a time when needs are higher than ever before.”

Some school districts in New York rely less on state funding than others. That’s because some school districts have a reliable, high-income tax base to draw from. But that also means that some districts, without that kind of tax base, depend heavily on state aid.

As of now, New York is projecting a budget deficit of $14 billion through next April, when the next fiscal year starts. Without more revenue, the state will be forced to cut spending. Since education is one of the largest parts of the state budget, that’s usually where cuts start.

NYSUT argued Wednesday that if the state made significant cuts to schools, it would be violating the right to a “sound, basic education” that’s enshrined in the state constitution.

The New York City School District is considering thousands of layoffs if the cuts are realized, while other districts have already let people go. The Schenectady City School District, already plagued by funding problems, laid off more than 300 employees ahead of the school year.

Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget, said the state hasn't actually had to withhold funding from most school districts, but that any cuts made in the future would be made with consideration to that district's reliance on state aid.

"We will work with our partners in government to address any remaining gaps in federal assistance and, in the absence of federal funding, any future aid withholdings will take school district need into consideration," Klopott said. "Instead of a frivolous lawsuit, NYSUT should turn its attention to Washington and work with us to get the assistance New York’s children deserve.”

While the cuts are being proposed by the state Division of Budget, which is controlled by Cuomo, the Legislature has the authority to reverse any changes to spending.

Under the same law that allows Cuomo to make those cuts, the Legislature has a period of 10 days to reconvene in Albany, or virtually, to develop their own plan for addressing the state’s finances.

As of now, the Legislature has not announced any plans to return to Albany in the near future.

Representatives for the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly did not respond to a request for comment.

Dan Clark is the host and producer of New York Now.