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Court rules more aid is due schools in N.Y. City

A mid-level state appeals court said Thursday the Legislature needs to pump at least an additional $4.7 billion into New York City schools beginning April 1, a decision that comes just as state lawmakers are trying to put the finishing touches on a school funding plan as part of the 2006 state budget.

But, curiously, both sides in the long-standing lawsuit declared victory after the 3-2 ruling by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, reactions that made this year's murky state budget process even more uncertain as the Legislature rushes to adopt a completed fiscal plan by next Friday's deadline. Neither side in the lawsuit would say whether it would appeal the ruling.

The decision has no legal impact on school aid to districts outside New York City, but the case is important to districts such as Buffalo because state officials have said that if any new money goes to New York City schools because of the lawsuit, the state will increase aid to other districts. Where that money would come from, though, has not been resolved.

The court said the state must, in order to comply with early court rulings in the case brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, pump between $4.7 billion and $5.63 billion in operating aid to the New York City schools over the next four years beginning with the start of the new fiscal year on April 1. An additional $9.1 billion in construction money should be spent over the next five years, the court said. The state spends about $16 billion a year on school aid now. The court's ruling would nearly double state aid to New York City.

But state officials who have fought the case said the decision was loaded with wiggle room that leaves discretion to the Legislature and Gov. George E. Pataki -- and not the courts -- to decide how much to spend on education.

"It's a clear victory that the legislative process is what will dictate school aid in this state," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. He said the court "did not dictate any sum of money. They simply concluded at the end that the Legislature consider sums of money, not mandate that anything take place."

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, sharply disagreed with Bruno. "I think this decision gives the Legislature direction that they better address this issue this year," Silver said.

Joseph Wayland, lead lawyer for the group formed in 1993 to challenge the state's school funding formula, said, "There is no question about what the decision requires the governor and Legislature to do: They are directed to take action.

"For spin to come out of Albany that this is a victory will not hold up," Wayland said. He added his group would go to the state's highest court to seek, possibly, an order of contempt -- which could carry a fine totaling millions of dollars a day -- if the new state budget does not address the court's ruling.

While defending the amount of aid already going to the city's schools, Pataki said the court decision "reaffirms the long-standing constitutional principle of separation of powers, and has again made clear that budgetary decisions must be made by the governor and legislature, not the courts."

The court sent mixed signals for lawyers to argue over. Repeatedly, it noted the authority for crafting state budgets is with the Legislature and governor. "It is not for the courts to make education policy," the decision states.

But the court said its complex, 53-page ruling "does not merely urge" action by lawmakers and Pataki. "They are directed to take action. The matter for them to consider is whether $4.7 billion or $5.63 billion, or some amount in between, is the minimum additional annual funding to be appropriated for the city schools," the decision written by Judge John T. Buckley states.


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