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High Court Rules For Large Cuts in Aid Sought by City Public Schools

By David M. Herszenhorn

New York state’s highest court ended a landmark legal fight over education financing on Monday, ruling that at least $1.93 billion more must be spent each year on New York City’s public schools far less than the $4.7 billion that a lower court called the minimum needed to give city children the chance for a sound basic education.

In its 4-2 ruling, the Court of Appeals noted that a commission appointed by Gov. George E. Pataki in 2004 had contemplated a range of spending options for the state to fulfill its constitutional obligation to New York City’s nearly 1.1 million schoolchildren, with $1.93 billion at the low end of the scale. The court endorsed the $1.93 billion as “reasonable.”

The amount is to be updated for inflation and other factors, which will bring the total to more than $2 billion a year.

The judges said that lower courts had erred by proposing their own sums, treading on the turf of the governor and the state Legislature. “In fashioning specific remedies for constitutional violations, we must avoid intrusion on the primary domain of another branch of government,” Judge Eugene F. Pigott Jr. wrote for the majority.

The New York case, brought by a coalition of education groups called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, has been among the most closely watched of dozens of lawsuits over school financing filed across the country that seek to direct more money to needy school districts. The ruling cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court because it is based on the state constitution.

The financing issue has divided Albany for years. But for all of the predictions over 13 years of litigation that the suit would reshape education financing in the state, the ruling did not do so. The court did not touch New York’s arcane formulas for education financing and refused to impose new oversight mechanisms.

The decision came as an immense blow to New York City, which, based on prior court rulings, had anticipated up to $5.63 billion a year in additional education aid. New York state now pays about $7.1 billion, or roughly 45 percent, of the city’s total education budget of $15.4 billion, the largest local school budget in the country. The court-ordered increase would be on top of this, but the ruling left open the possibility that the state would press the city to contribute to the added financing.

The decision on Monday also vacated lower courts’ rulings mandating more than $9 billion in capital aid for new schools, libraries and other amenities, saying that the state had met its obligation last spring by authorizing $11.1 billion for the city’s schools.

Even as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg issued a muted statement — “we now look forward to receiving additional funds from the state” — the ruling was greeted with a measure of relief in Albany, especially among Republican lawmakers representing upstate and suburban districts.