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Niagara Falls and Jamestown win suit over money for schools

Niagara Falls and Jamestown win suit over money for schools

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New York State owes eight small city school districts, including Niagara Falls and Jamestown, a total of $1.1 billion for state aid it withheld during and after the great recession, a state appellate court ruled.

The Appellate Division, Third Department, ruled that the state failed to meet its constitutional obligations to provide a basic education to its students in the eight districts.

The appellate court sent the matter back to Supreme Court, maintaining that it had no authority to direct the nature of the remedy or how it is implemented. The state has until Monday to decide whether to appeal. The state attorney general's office did not reply to an email asking if the state would appeal the decision. 

Parents in the school districts, all with large numbers of high needs students, first petitioned state Supreme Court in 2008 to require New York to comply with the state Constitution, which requires the state to provide a "sound, basic education."

They argued that New York State did not adequately fund foundation aid, the aid category that funds most school operations, and that the state cut aid in the wake of the recession. The school districts said they were due a total of $1.1 billion in state aid that was withheld from from 2010 through 2015.

Because of the cuts, the districts cut services for at-risk students, including academic intervention services, social workers and guidance counselors, and that led to low test scores and graduation rates, they argued. 

Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie said poor small city school districts don't have a large tax base to raise taxes, and every school district is limited by the tax cap. 

"This is going to give equity, final equity, for a poor district like Niagara Falls," Laurrie said. 

The case has become known as the "Small Cities" case. The other districts are Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica.

A trial was conducted in 2012, and the case was dismissed in 2016. The Appellate Division unanimously reversed that decision and returned the case to Supreme Court.

State Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Conner wrote in her 2016 decision that “unfortunately, no funding mechanism will ever be perfect, and it is a laudable goal, but an impossible dream, to reach a 100% success rate for students in all measured areas.”

O’Conner then ruled in 2019 that the districts provided instruction in all the required subjects, and that services such as academic intervention, social workers and guidance counselors were not required under the Constitution, calling them "aspirational goals."

The appellate court rejected that decision, saying that "although we agree with Supreme Court that the educational system cannot be charged with resolving all of society's problems, we believe that the services and programming in question are foundational and that the level provided was insufficient to meet student need." 

The appellate decision also states that "the compelling evidence demonstrated that, in order to place a sound basic education within the reach of such students, they require early interventions, more time on task and other supplemental programming, as well as support from adequate numbers of guidance counselors, social workers or other similar professionals. Despite these enhanced needs, the districts lacked a combined total of over $1.1 billion in funding slated to be issued under foundation aid, necessitating further cuts to already diminished staff and essential services."

“This ruling sends a clear message that fiscal downturns, economic recessions or even a pandemic do not excuse states from their constitutional obligation to adequately fund public education,” Greg Little of the Education Law Center, a lead lawyer in the case, said in a statement on the law center's website. “The bottom line of this decision is states cannot balance their budgets on the backs of their school children.”

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