In an era when a judge can sue a dry cleaner for $54 million over a pair of lost pants, perhaps it's not surprising that the State University of New York and Westchester County went to the mat over the meaning of two reordered words.
The state's highest court ruled last week that the SUNY system's Board of Regents was within its rights in 2003 when it issued regulations that limited county governments to approving the "budget total" rather than the "total budget" of their local community colleges. In New York's higher education governance structure, county and local governments "sponsor" two-year colleges and have final say over their budgets, which are set and administered by the state university system.
SUNY, seeking to gain more budgetary autonomy and limit the authority of local and county governments to set areas of spending within community college budgets, tried for several years to persuade the Legislature to change state law to that effect, to no avail, said Stephen J. Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties.
When the university system instead carried out that and other changes through regulatory changes (to carry out changed intended by the Legislature in 1998, SUNY officials asserted), Westchester County, north of New York City, which sponsors Westchester Community College, challenged SUNY's approach, joined by the association of counties.
"Governance of community colleges has always been a triangle partnership, and this was a case of two of the sides [SUNY and the two-year colleges] trying to push something through that they could not get through the Legislature," Acquario said.
In its ruling, the New York State Court of Appeals declared that the subtle regulatory change -- which said that county governments could vote on the "budget total" of a local college, rather than the "total budget" -- indeed meant that sponsoring governments (counties or localities) would no longer have line-item veto power or be able to shift money from one budget line to another.
"This is an important and positive decision for SUNY's community colleges," a spokeswoman for SUNY, Casey Cannistraci, said in a prepared statement. "The New York State Court of Appeals has affirmed SUNY's position that local sponsors do not have line-item veto authority over community college budgets. The decision strengthens the right of the local community college board of trustees to exercise the fiscal flexibility intended by the State Legislature. We are very pleased with this outcome."
Although the decision restricted county authority to veto or move money among individual budget lines, Acquario characterized the decision as a "very narrow" one that left local governments with significant authority over the two-year colleges. County officials retain the right to review (and, where appropriate, reject) a two-year college's entire budget, as well as to audit spending after the fact.