State officials are illegally withholding millions of dollars from three low-performing New York City schools, according to a lawsuit filed against the State Education Department and state Division of Budget on Friday.
The schools —Automotive High School and P.S. 328 Phyllis Wheatley School in Brooklyn and Mosholu Parkway Middle School in the Bronx — were added to the state’s list of persistently struggling schools in July 2015, making them eligible for extra state funding.
But in February, the State Education Department, citing new test data, removed four of the seven original “persistently struggling” New York City schools from the list. One of the schools, P.S. 64 in the Bronx, was closed. Because the remaining three were no longer on the list of lowest-performing schools, they became ineligible for their second year of funding through the state grant, according to the state Division of the Budget.
That decision angered advocates such as the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education, which helped organize parents to file suit over the lost funding, an amount the group said totals about $3.1 million for the three New York City schools, and $12.4 million statewide. Across the state, nine schools will not receive the expected extra funding, which was used for improvements like extended learning time and additional teacher training.
“There’s absolutely nothing in the law that said if you make improvements during the first year, and the commissioner decides to take you off the persistently failing list, you don’t get the second year of the grant,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the organization that brought the lawsuit on behalf of parents. He noted in a statement, “There is nothing to permit the Governor, through the Division of Budget, to withhold funds.”
The case represents the latest battle over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s receivership program, which can allow outside managers to take over the state’s most troubled schools, fire principals and force teachers to reapply for their jobs. (The process in New York City is slightly different, but confers similar authority over “failing” schools to Chancellor Carmen Fariña.)
Since the lawsuit was filed Friday, different arms of the state bureaucracy have pointed fingers at each other over who is responsible for withholding the money. The state Division of the Budget has largely blamed the State Education Department, while SED said removal from the persistently struggling schools list should not require a loss of funding.
“For SED to take these schools out of the program at this early stage makes no sense and is an absolute disservice to the children,” Morris Peters, a DOB spokesman, wrote in a statement. “We’ve consistently said we prefer that schools stay in the program so that the funding continues and the necessary reforms may be enacted.”
Meanwhile, after initially declining to comment directly on the lawsuit, SED spokesman Jonathan Burman wrote, “The State Education Department’s position has always been that funding should be made available to these schools — even if they are removed from the list — so they can continue the important work of supporting students.”