Rejection of NYC school funding formula sparks concern

What began Wednesday night with a routine vote by the city’s Panel for Educational Policy ended with principals, union officials and even the schools chancellor worrying about the potential delay in school budgets and plans. for the upcoming school year.

The panel, a mostly appointed board that makes decisions on major contracts and policies, rejected an annual request by the city to approve its 15-year school funding formula, which sends more money to schools that have academic difficulties, as well as those with higher proportions of students with disabilities and English language learners.

The formula represents about $10 billion in funding and accounts for 65% of a school’s budget, most of which goes to hiring staff, and the vote could delay headteachers’ ability to build classrooms for their students next year, said Lindsay Oates, the department’s chief financial officer. Although city officials said they were “committed” to reviewing the formula, Chancellor David Banks called the vote “deeply disappointing”.

The issue could be rendered moot by a May 18 meeting if all of Mayor Eric Adams’ appointees attend — one was absent Wednesday night — or if he appoints a new panel member to replace the one he forced to resign in March.

Either way, the controversy highlights long-standing concerns about whether the formula is fair enough, such as whether it provides extra support for homeless students. When members of the public raised these concerns, at least one panel member who had planned to vote “yes” abstained instead.

“It was a moral vote in the direction of making sure we hold the city accountable for once again forgetting about the most vulnerable students,” said President-appointed panel member Kaliris Salas-Ramirez. of the Borough of Manhattan, Mark Levine. “We don’t want this to impact school communities in any way, and we will certainly do our best to move forward and have some form of clarity or agreement.”

The panel’s vote is unlikely to have an immediate effect on school budgets, according to a former senior Education Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely. But if the committee doesn’t approve the funding formula at its next meeting in May, or if committee members approve a modified version that requires recalculating school budgets, it could delay principals’ ability to plan and make hiring decisions for the upcoming school year since they won’t have a clear idea of ​​their upcoming budgets.

“Do I think it’s the end of the world? No,” the former official said. “Do I think this is really bad practice? Yes.”

How did it happen?

The mayor appoints nine people, a majority, to the 15-member council, meaning that proposals from the administration are rarely rejected. However, Adams failed to replace a minister who was forced to resign after the New York Daily News revealed his anti-gay writing.

In addition, another mayor’s appointee was absent due to a family emergency, according to panel member and mayor’s appointee Gregory Faulkner. That left the administration with seven of the eight votes it needed. While they all voted yes, the members appointed by the borough presidents all abstained and the elected official, Tom Sheppard, voted no.

Wednesday night’s vote stunned some observers. For some, the vote suggested that City Hall and the Education Department were not paying enough attention to how PEP members planned to vote – or even making sure they had filled all the vacancies allocated to the mayor. .

“In the weeks leading up to a PEP meeting, you had to understand where people were on the issues,” the former education department official said. “Does anyone manage this process?”

Still, the former official said: ‘The most likely outcome is that they engage with PEP to rethink the funding formula for next year and bring it back for a vote.’

It’s in line with what Salas-Ramirez is hoping for. Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Education Department officials briefed panel members on the funding formula.

Salas-Ramirez said she raised concerns about the formula during her group briefing and during a one-on-one discussion with a department official.

Eventually, Salas-Ramirez felt that Oates and other department officials were candid with her, understood the formula needed to change, and committed to reworking it, so she had planned to vote “yes” on Wednesday night.

“But last night the community outreach was so powerful,” Salas-Ramirez said. “Having so many [Community Education Council] community members and people talk about the inequities of the fair student funding formula for students with disabilities, the limitations it has in terms of serving marginalized communities, the lack of accountability for students who live below the poverty and temporary housing – all of those things really resonated with us.

Some of the panel members appeared influenced by NeQuan McLean, chairman of the District 16 Parent Council, who said he was part of a city task force that spent nine months making recommendations to change the formula which were ultimately not disclosed to the public.

A copy of this rough draft, which was never officially released by the de Blasio administration, presents nine recommendations. They include adding a new weight to the formula for students living in poverty, homelessness, or in foster care, and increasing the weight of secondary schools to match those with “ specialized academic portfolios” – an issue with how the formula sends money to certain higher levels. performing schools, which tend to enroll fewer black and Hispanic students.

There were no specific recommendations on what the weights should be, but rather suggestions on the next steps the city should take. Some of the recommendations appeared to have the support of a majority, but not all, of the task force members.

Panel members asked why this report had not been released, and some asked to see a copy, including Salas-Ramirez. Faulkner, the appointed mayor, said in an interview that he would also like a copy.

On Wednesday evening, Oates, who worked during de Blasio’s tenure, said she “cannot speak to the previous administration’s decision not to release the report,” but noted that release was scheduled for later. when the pandemic hit.

She said the city should discuss how the formula can be improved and that she understands “the frustration” that the task force’s work is not being published or implemented. But what also needs to be considered is that the report’s recommendations “would require new resources to pay [them]” which will not be an easy lift. Despite this, the city has previously faced one of the biggest criticisms by giving schools all the money owed to them under this formula, following historic increases in state funding and a infusion of federal stimulus dollars.

Salas-Ramirez said she and other borough appointees did not intend to abstain together in Wednesday’s vote, and said she abstained instead of voting “no” because she had not discussed the matter with Levine, her attorney. Still, she called the resulting vote a “strategy” to get the city to commit to working on an overhaul of the formula.

“What we can do with this vote is take this opportunity to formally commit to making change by next year,” she said.

Faulkner said he felt fully informed during his briefings. He agrees there are issues with the formula, but last night was not the right time to dismiss it. He also felt “somewhat surprised” by the comments as no one on the panel had raised any issues with the formula until Wednesday evening.

“I think there are definitely issues with the formula, but because it was last minute, we have to err on the side of ‘What’s going to hurt the least?'” Faulkner said. “If it was a bad formula, like, OK, I get it, but are we now going to put all the children at risk?”

What does this mean for schools?

It would not be the first time that school budgets have been delayed. Oates said the schools received their budgets in July and June in 2020 and 2021, respectively, due to the “extreme budget crisis” the city was facing due to the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, schools typically received their budget plans in mid-May, meaning they knew how much money they would receive for the next school year and could start making decisions about hiring and numbers. classes they might need.

Former Washington Heights principal Julie Zuckerman said her budget delay last year caused a hiring mess at her school. She was arguing with the Education Department over an apparent miscalculation, which prevented her from hiring another teacher before the start of the school year – issues that perhaps could have been resolved if his budget had arrived on time.

“It’s a multi-layered situation, and when a little bit goes off, it has a lot of repercussions,” Zuckerman said.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals’ union, said he did not foresee a major impact on school budgets if the PEP approved the funding formula at its next meeting, but cautioned. guard against disruptions to school planning if funding uncertainty extends beyond that.

“That needs to be sorted out at the next meeting,” he said. “The city and the DOE should have made sure this was going to pass before the vote.”

Before the vote, Banks said his immediate reaction after hearing panel members’ concerns was to file the case, but it was too late to do so.

“Essentially what we’re saying is that we don’t have time to deal with it now, which basically leaves you as PEP members no choice as to how we should move forward,” said Banks. “I’m not happy with this process.”

A spokesperson for the Education Department declined to say what the city plans to do next.

Reema Amine is a journalist covering New York City schools with a focus on state politics and English language learners. Contact Reema at [email protected]

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering New York’s public schools. Contact Alex at [email protected]