In its papers, the city argued that the court has no role in deciding this matter, but right off the bat, the Judge rejected the claim that the sole authority over NYC’s compliance with the law should be reserved for the NY State Commissioner of Education. Judge Barone said that even if the state legislature wanted to deprive the court of jurisdiction that would be unconstitutional. He said he was “astounded” that any attorney would dare argue that the court doesn’t have the power to review this matter.
Very quickly the legal arguments became focused instead on whether the plaintiffs (including Class Size Matters, the UFT, NAACP, the Hispanic Federation, and assorted public school parents) should exhaust other administrative remedies first before coming to court, i.e. filing a complaint with the Commissioner.
Charles Moerdler, one of our attorneys from the firm of Stroock, Stroock and Lavan, recited a long list of legal precedents as far back as 1919, including decisions of the Court of Appeals, showing that the court has a right to step in before other administrative procedures have been exhausted. He provided important background information, explaining how as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, the city had been provided with more than $1.5 billion in state funds, with $760 million of that earmarked for class size reduction, on the condition that it reduce class size. The city submitted a plan to do so, promised it would spend that money appropriately, and did not. Thus it is in breach of contract, pure and simple. This is matter of law, not fact, and the court is the best place to hear a matter of law, he argued, especially as the Commissioner of Education has no legal background.
Moerdler also pointed out that going to the Commissioner now for a ruling could take months, and the courts have found that where there is a need for urgent action, as there is in this case, they should step in. Going the other route could consign thousands of children to irreparable harm and another school year of illegal and excessive class sizes that would deny them the fundamental right to an adequate education. Given that the Commissioner’s decision is likely to be appealed to the Court in any event, these children could have graduated from high school before the case was resolved.
The lawyer from the city’s Corporation Counsel, Emily Sweet, said that if the Judge did hear the case, the trial would be full of complicated and arcane matters involving budget allocations, DOE guidance memos and various funding streams, and that the Commissioner was more able to determine the facts of the case and understand these complex matters.
Yet despite the attempts of the city to confuse and obscure this issue with smoke and mirrors, including jargon-filled memos, abstruse powerpoint presentations, and talk of funding streams, the facts in this case are clear and undisputable: the DOE has not reduced class size, according to its own data. It has not adhered to its own state-mandated and binding class size reduction plan, and has not used the funding as required by law.
Judge Barone said that he would give both sides two weeks to submit more papers, but that he intended to rule shortly thereafter as to whether the case should proceed to trial. As he said the city's motion to dismiss is is an important motion in an important case. Cross your fingers and hold onto your hats!