Years after the Kingston City School District joined seven other small-city school districts in suing the state for what plaintiffs claimed were funding inequities, a judge ruled this week that the state had met its “constitutional obligation” in providing those districts with enough money.
The issue of equitable aid was at the heart of the $1.11 billion lawsuit brought by the Alliance for Quality Education on behalf of 26 students in eight small city school districts, including Kingston, in 2008. State Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor has been reviewing Maisto v. State, commonly known as “the Small Cities lawsuit,” since a filing deadline of Feb. 9.
The Small Cities suit followed a 2007 Court of Appeals ruling that ordered the state to increase aid to schools in New York City. Along with Kingston, Jamestown, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica were also plaintiffs in the suit, which sought to similarly increase its aid, as small city schools often face the same issues as schools in New York City.
On Monday, O’Connor ruled that the state has kept up its end of the bargain in its funding of small city schools.
“The court concludes that the plaintiffs have failed to establish their claim that the state has not met its constitutional obligation to provide the students in the eight small city school districts with the opportunity for a sound, basic education,” O’Connor wrote in her ruling.
While O’Connor found that the small city districts often struggled with low graduation rates and other issues, she said there was no tangible correlation between the funding those districts received from the state and the problems they faced.
“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 measurable areas,” O’Connor wrote.
While Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office has yet to respond, those on the plaintiffs’ side of the argument were quick to denounce O’Connor’s ruling.
“The implication of the judge’s order is that New York City schools should be fully funded, but that it is OK to have a double-standard where schools in the rest of the state only get a small fraction of that ordered for New York City,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. “That is simply unacceptable and is why the plaintiffs have already announced their intention to appeal this case. And by the way, the state has failed to fully fund New York City schools as ordered in CFE. It is time for the Governor and the Legislature to finally fully fund the Foundation Aid formula. From Mount Vernon to Poughkeepsie to Utica, students in already under-resourced schools have faced devastating cuts to programs and services. The court failed to thoroughly examine these facts.”
Locally, the ruling was greeted with disappointment, if not surprise.
“Kingston has been committed to it throughout,” said KCSD Superintendent Paul Padalino on Tuesday. “Is it finished? Are we going to appeal? I think it’s going to be up to the eight districts to come together with our counsel and small city schools and talk about what our next step is. Obviously the assumption is appeal.”
Padalino suggested that the various delays from the state during the suit’s eight years in court may have been by design.
“The truth is, all through this process, this case has been delayed and delayed and shifted from court to court, in my opinion with the strategy of really making it beyond what we can afford,” Padalino said. “This case has been going on for a long time. There’s obviously legal bills that come along with it. No one is doing pro bono work on this. There is a cost, and whether the boards of education and the districts involved want to continue to fund this effort given what seems to have been a pretty decisive finding by the current judge, I think we’re going to have to get together and regroup.”
Padalino said he expects the small city districts will begin considering appealing O’Connor’s ruling this week, though he declined to put a timeline on when a decision on whether to appeal would come. But he added that in addition to the cost of proceeding, there’s also the perception that the state has been generous with school districts like Kingston recently.
“The public has kind of lost track of the school funding movement because we have had a couple of good years,” Padalino said. “With the elimination of the Gap Elimination Adjustment [instituted in 2010-11 by Cuomo to overcome a budget deficit by decreasing state aid to school districts], people began to think we’ve had a few victories there. Ninety-eight point seven percent of school district budgets passed on the first try. People aren’t talking about it anymore, but we’re only one small economic downturn away from that changing again. A consistent formula that drives state funding to school districts that need it is something that would guarantee an adequate education to all students.”
There is also the possibility, Padalino said, that the district’s recent academic success may have given the impression there wasn’t a need for increased aid. Overall graduation rates for the Kingston High School rose from 82.88 percent a year ago to 84.16 percent for the Class of 2016 in June. Those gains were seen in almost every subgroup, including students with disabilities, who experienced a graduation rate of 72.92 percent, a massive leap over last year’s total of 47.13 percent.
“One of the big topics during the case was, ‘Well, Kingston seems to be doing pretty well,’” Padalino said. “But how much better could we be doing? How much better could we be serving our special education students, our students who are economically challenged. Yeah, we’re doing well, but if I could put a little more money toward our students with disabilities or put a little more money toward community resources to get our economically disadvantaged students more of what they need, where would our numbers be then?”
Padalino said he was most disappointed that the ruling didn’t result in a stable funding formula for school districts like Kingston.
“I wasn’t putting this in an anticipated revenue line in our budget or anything,” he said. “But my mind was always around the idea that maybe this would be a fix moving forward.”