AG Mazuz: Jerusalem Mayor 'Fixed' Budget Increase for ultra-Orthodox Schools

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who beat ultra-Orthodox candidate Meir Porush during the last municipal election, has improperly boosted municpal funding for schools run by Shas and by Porush's United Torah Judaism party, according to a statement by outgoing Attorney General Menachem Mazuz.

Mazuz has instructed the Jerusalem District Court to overturn a decision made at Barkat's request in August which increases financial support for the two party's schools. Mazuz says the criteria set for the budget allocations were "fixed" to suit the ultra-Orthodox groups.

The Attorney General also asked the court to order the municipality and the schools in question to pay the legal costs of the case. In a statement to the court, which followed a petition filed by the Movement for Progressive Judaism, Mazuz commented on the criteria set by the municipality, which stated that it would increase support only to recognized non-governmental institutions that receive more than 75 percent of their funding from the state. Mazuz said those conditions are met only by ultra-Orthodox institutions and in this way the municipality is giving them preferential treatment.

The Attorney General agreed with the legal opinion of municipal legal counsel Yossi Habilio that increasing funding for these schools undermines the principle of equality of all educational institutions that are recognized but are non-state institutions. Mazuz also said that the entire process in which the city council decided that the institutions met the criteria for increased funding, although the intended recipients themselves had not requested such evaluation, is flawed "and is evidence that the decision aimed to provide them, and only them, with special funding."

He said this was done in order to legitimize the existing illegal practice of biased funding and to ensure its perpetuation. In a legal opinion Habilio presented to former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianky in December 2007, following a petition by rights groups to the Supreme Court on the shortage of classrooms in East Jerusalem, he wrote that unlike ultra-Orthodox schools, which are non-governmental institutions, in East Jerusalem where the municipality is obligated to provide education because the institutions there are considered state-run, pupils are being turned down because of lack of resources.

The same document also points out that classrooms in East Jerusalem often hold more than the maximum number of pupils permitted by the Education Ministry. "The gravity of the situation and the responsibility of the municipality by law, requires the municipality to give utmost priority to this matter," Habilio wrote.

A report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Ir Amim rights group ahead of the start of the current school year said that there was a shortage of 1000-1500 classrooms in East Jerusalem schools. The report said that the municipality is constructing a lot less schools than is required because of the limited budget that the government has allocated to it, despite promises made before the Supreme Court.

According to existing plans for which budget allocations have been made, by 2011 at the latest, the municipality will construct 27 percent of the classrooms missing in schools in East Jerusalem. Habilio's document states that even though it is up to the state to ensure funding is made available for the building, "the municipality must take the necessary actions in order to obtain the funds from the state."