By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City was hit with a temporary restraining order on Tuesday blocking it from imposing up to $260 million in school funding cuts this year, handing a victory to students and parents who had argued the cuts would be a blow to public education.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Manuel Mendez issued the order requiring the city to forgo service cuts, including staff reductions and fewer extracurricular activities.
The ruling came two weeks after Mendez issued a preliminary injunction barring the state from withholding $260 million in school aid from the city as a penalty for failing to reach a deal with the teachers union.
In spite of the injunction, school and city officials decided to move forward as if the funding cuts remained in effect, prompting parents and students to return to court to ask for further action.
City officials were concerned that they could spend the money only to have the injunction overturned on appeal, leaving a hole in the approximately $24 billion public schools budget.
"The cold reality is neither this court, nor plaintiffs' counsel, not the city or the state can predict what will happen," city attorney Alan Kleinman told Mendez at a hearing Tuesday.
But Mendez said the city's decision not to use the state funding amounted to a "back-door" way of ignoring his prior injunction.
"The court intended for the money to be there," he said.
In a statement following the hearing, Kleinman said the city would consider an appeal.
The state began withholding the aid after the city failed to meet a January 17 deadline for striking a deal with the United Federation of Teachers on a new system for evaluating teacher performance.
A group of parents and students sued the state, claiming the funding cuts violated students' constitutional right to basic education.
Michael Rebell, who represents the parents and students, said at Tuesday's hearing that the city was employing "perverse logic" to justify the cuts.
"They're saying, ‘We're definitely going to harm them today because we might possibly have to harm them later,'" he said.
The parties are due back in court on April 2, a day after the state budget is due, for a hearing on whether the temporary restraining order should be extended.
If lawmakers decide to scrap the penalty provision and restore the school aid, as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has proposed, the lawsuit would become moot.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Edward Krudy; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Bernard Orr)