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• Cuomo has a point that New York state law does permit the governor of New York to seize school-closing powers when there is a declared emergency.
• But while Cuomo has declared an emergency due to the coronavirus, he hasn’t gone so far as to exercise the power of pre-empting local school-closing powers.
• This has enabled the city to continue calling the shots on whether the schools should be opened or remain closed.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrat, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have sparred for years over the governance of their shared state. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic that has hit New York City hard, the two officials are having to work together.
One issue that has come up is whether to open the New York City public schools or keep them closed for health reasons.
In an April 11 announcement, de Blasio said the New York City public schools would remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year, with students continuing remote learning through June 26.
"After very careful consideration," de Blasio said, "I announce today that the New York City public schools will remain closed for the remainder of this school year."
But a few hours later, Cuomo said, "That’s his opinion, but he didn’t close them, and he can’t open them. It happened on a metropolitan-wide basis."
So who has the authority to open New York City’s public schools? It’s a bit complicated, experts say. (Multiple inquiries to Cuomo’s and de Blasio’s office for this article were not returned.)
In normal times, local law would give de Blasio, working with New York City schools chancellor Richard A. Carranza, the authority to close the city’s public schools.
However, in the event of an emergency, such as the one Cuomo has declared, the governor has the power to override local law.
Under New York Executive Law sections 24 and 29-A, the governor "has the power to supersede any local law in an emergency," said Roderick M. Hills Jr, a New York University law professor.
Specifically, section 29-A says that "subject to the state constitution, the federal constitution and federal statutes and regulation, the governor may by executive order temporarily suspend any statute, local law, ordinance, or orders, rules or regulations, or parts thereof, of any agency during a state disaster emergency."
To exercise such powers, Cuomo has a statutory duty to be specific about what local laws he is suspending. The governor "shall specify the statute, local law, ordinance, order, rule or regulation or part thereof to be suspended and the terms and conditions of the suspension," the statute says.
The wrinkle in the current situation is Cuomo has not chosen to exercise the power he holds.
"The governor has not suspended Chancellor Carranza’s power under Education Law 2590-H to close schools in an emergency," Hills said. So Cuomo’s existing executive order "is insufficient to strip the mayor and the mayor’s chancellor of school-closing authority."
Indeed, it was de Blasio in mid-March who closed the 1,800 public schools in the New York City system, according to the New York Times. "This is something in a million years I could never have imagined having to do," said de Blasio.
Going forward, Cuomo said he plans to coordinate reopening plans with other jurisdictions in the metropolitan area, including Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island and Westchester County north of New York City.
Cuomo said that under the law, de Blasio "can’t open" New York City’s schools.
Cuomo has a point that New York state law does permit the governor of New York to seize such powers as closing schools as long as there is a declared emergency. But while Cuomo has declared an emergency due to the coronavirus, he hasn’t gone so far as to exercise the power of pre-empting local school-closing powers. This has enabled the city to continue calling the shots on whether the schools should be opened or remain closed.
The statement is partially accurate but needs additional information, so we rate it Half True.
State Capitol Red Room Albany, remarks by Gov. Cuomo, New York City Mayor de Blasio, April 11, 2020
Yahoo! News, "New York City public schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year, Mayor Bill de Blasio says," April 11, 2020
New York Times, "New York City Public Schools to Close to Slow Spread of Coronavirus," March 15, 2020
New York State Senate, Laws of New York Section 29-A, April 24, 2020
New York Times, "Coronavirus in N.Y.: Cuomo Declares State of Emergency," March 7, 2020
Email interview with Wendy K. Mariner, law professor at Boston University, April 20, 2020
Email interview with Roderick M. Hills Jr., law professor at New York University, April 22, 2020
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