Judge Rules Against Schools

The trial judge in the Small Cities school funding case has ruled against the 80 plaintiffs in the eight small city school districts — Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica — suing New York state for additional state aid.

The judge’s first decision was unanimously reversed by the state Appellate Division, Third Department. The plaintiffs in the case include Jamestown, Kingston City School District, Mount Vernon City School District, Newburgh Enlarged City School District, Niagara Falls City School District, Port Jervis City School District, Poughkeepsie City School District and Utica City School District.

“The recent Maisto decision is yet another blow to the disenfranchised children of New York state,” said Bret Apthorpe, Jamestown Public Schools superintendent. “The judge in the case based her decision upon the testimony of state “experts” who had no experiences with schools in poverty. Fairly funding our schools will be the only way for our students to have the opportunities our state constitution calls for. We know how to counteract the forces of poverty and provide students the education they need to be successful in college and career. All we need is for the state to honor the law and fairly fund our schools.”

In October 2017, the Third Department Appellate Division reversed trial court Judge Kimberly O’Connor’s 2016 decision dismissing the case involving eight state school districts while directing O’Connor to make factual fundings relating to state aid and the effects of possible underfunding of school districts on students for each of the eight school districts and make a determination regarding the declaratory relief requested by the school districts. The Appellate Court also directed O’Connor to weight the adequacy of state aid considering the quality of instruction, adequacy of school buildings and classrooms and availability of classroom supplies, textbooks, libraries and computers.

Consideration was to be given to whether class sizes must be reduced or whether additional academic intervention services, language services, extended learning opportunities or additional social workers must be provided to enable students to get a sound, basic education. For any district where the court found aid was insufficient, the court was to determine, on a district-by-district basis, if the districts established a cause-and-effect link that showed increased funding can yield better student performance.

In a decision released Friday, O’Connor wrote that the common thread running through each of the small city school districts is high-needs students, a majority of whom are economically disadvantaged, have disabilities or limited English proficiency and are districts in which student performance is inadequate. O’Connor wrote that the school districts’ did not dispute the state took steps to address the concerns raised in the first Campaign for Fiscal Equity case by changing the structure and methodology of education funding while also increasing the amount the state spends on its schools.

“It is not the judiciary’s role to make a determination of exactly what number is appropriate to fund a particular school district, but instead the court must determine whether the state’s funding mechanism is reasonable and rational, or if the State has failed to meet its constitutional obligation,” O’Connor wrote. “It is interesting to note that in the plaintiffs’ reply to the defendant’s post-trial memorandum, plaintiffs frame the issue as follows: Unlike in CFE, [p]laintiffs are not alleging that the current funding system (Foundation Aid) is itself inadequate to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education. Rather it is the state’s failure to fully fund the system that is causing the deprivation of a sound basic education in the Maisto [d]istricts.”

RULING SPECIFIC TO JAMESTOWN

Specifically to Jamestown, O’Connor write that the district did not make a strong case that a specific class size is needed to improve student achievement, particularly since class sizes in Jamestown were generally less than those noted by the court in the original Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. O’Connor said that while having fewer students in a class would mean a teacher can spend more time with students, there are too many variables to consider to make a concrete formula or number apply.

“… the court finds that the ratios and class sizes (for AIS students and non-AIS students) in the Jamestown City School District are acceptable and do not create an environment that violates the requirement of providing an opportunity for a sound basic education.”

O’Connor also ruled that Jamestown officials’ contention that the qualification and experience of teachers within the district are inadequate and are contributing factors to poor student performance was incorrect. In most categories, the percentage of teachers meeting each requirement exceeded the state average, with the exception of teachers with a master’s degree or a doctorate.

“This does not demonstrate that the Jamestown City School District has poor quality teachers or that the certification and experience of its teachers are inadequate. In fact, it demonstrates the opposite. The teachers in the Jamestown City School District were generally more qualified, or as qualified, as the teachers across the state. Therefore, the court finds that the qualifications and experience of the teachers in the Jamestown City School District are adequate,” O’Connor wrote.

The judge also ruled that the issues with facilities and classrooms do not rise to the level of deficiency found in the original New York City-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, particularly since the district’s witnesses testified that there was additional funding available during the years covered during the lawsuit to address perceived deficiencies.

District officials also argued that the district doesn’t have enough technology-related classroom aids, such as smart boards. O’Connor said the district didn’t offer proof regarding those shortocmings nor prove that those shortcomings, if they exist, impacted the district’s ability to provide a sound, basic education. The judge also wrote that the district has taken advantage of the Smart Schools Bond Act, which was going to further help schools pay for technology upgrades.

O’Connor’s final ruling comes in the area of Additional Supplemental Services.

“It is significant to this Court, and worth noting, that the standard established in the CFE cases is that school districts must provide each student with the “opportunity” for a sound basic education. CFE does not require that school districts achieve the actual “attainment” of a sound basic education for each student. This is a distinction that must be adhered to in determining the constitutional minimum required. This distinction also highlights the shortcomings in the proof presented by the plaintiffs, which was laser-focused on the poor outputs of these school districts and their argument that such proof is also proof of poor inputs and ultimately causation. This reasoning is flawed.”

Jamestown officials said the district only offers Academic Intervention Services or reading, with nothing available for math, science or social studies in violation of the state Education Department’s Academic Intervention Services regulations. O’Connor writes that the fact the district isn’t in compliance with state regulations is not proof of a constitutional violation and that the district provides instruction at all levels in all of the required subjects to all students.

“So, there is no deficiency in the basic offerings to the students,” O’Connor decided. “On a basic level, this points to the constitutional adequacy of the curriculum and teaching offered to the students.The plaintiffs have presented this Court with the question of whether more individualized and supplemental attention is required for certain students in order to provide them with the opportunity for a sound basic education. The plaintiffs contend that the failure of the at-risk student population to achieve certain benchmarks necessitates a finding that the inputs are constitutionally infirm. However, such analysis is circular, and cannot alone serve as the basis for a finding of constitutional infirmity.”

O’Connor ruled that Jamestown officials did not meet their burden of proof that the state’s aid to the school district is depriving students of their right to a sound, basic education. The judge also ruled that the state’s witnesses were credible and that the state’s evidence more accurately analyzed the Jamestown City School District through the lens of the case law requirements than did the district’s attorneys.

“As noted by the defendant’s expert, Gregory Hunter, “data-driven and research-based instructional practices using available resources, if successfully implemented, should begin to result in improved student performance results,’” O’Connor wrote. “Accordingly, the court finds that the inputs in the Jamestown City School District are adequate to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education to its students.”

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