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Niagara Falls and Jamestown lose suit over money for schools

By Tom Precious

NEWS ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF

ALBANY – A state judge Monday rejected the claim by eight small city school districts, including Niagara Falls and Jamestown, that the state had failed to meet its constitutional obligations to provide a basic education to its students.

The districts, all with high-needs students, commenced its litigation in 2008, a year after the state’s highest court said state school aid funding to New York City over the years was so inadequate that some students were deprived of a “sound, basic education.”

But acting Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Conner in Albany said Monday that the state has been addressing the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit decision in its annual budget, and that the government has implemented non-fiscal changes that have also benefited schools.

The judge also said the state’s compliance with the CFE decision is still in its “infancy,” so that it is still too soon to tell if it has failed to comply with the terms of that case.

“Unfortunately, no funding mechanism will ever be perfect, and it is a laudable goal, but an impossible dream, to reach a 100 percent success rate for students in all measured areas,” the judge wrote in her 16-page decision.

The eight districts maintained the state shortchanged them by a combined $1.1 billion in funding over a five-year period between 2010 and 2015.

Besides Jamestown and Niagara Falls, districts that launched what became known as the “Small Cities” case are Kingston, Newburgh, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie, Mount Vernon and Utica.

School officials in Niagara Falls earlier this year said the lack of adequate state funding since 2007 has led to more than 150 staff position cuts – all while learning standards have been raised by the state and poverty levels have risen.

“It’s probably the civil rights issue of our time, public funding for public education in New York state. Our children are not getting a sound public education,” Jamestown Superintendent Tim O. Mains told The Buffalo News in March.

The Education Law Center, one of the legal representatives representing the interests of the schools, said the judge acknowledged that students in the eight districts are academically underperforming compared to better-funded districts. “The tragic effect of this decision is that the children in these districts will continue to suffer even longer as the plaintiffs pursue an appeal which we are confident will be successful. But that success will come too late for the vast majority of students who will go through life without the benefit of their constitutional rights to a sound basic education, the group said Monday evening.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com

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