The Schenectady teachers union and its president joined a school funding lawsuit filed Tuesday in Albany County, challenging the constitutionality of 20-percent reductions in aid payments to schools districts across the state.
The suit argues the state Legislature ceded its power to the governor in granting authority to withhold budgeted payments and that the governor has overstepped his authority in carrying out cuts the union says prevent schools from providing students a sound education.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers and a Mont Pleasant Middle School teacher, and Tracy Cimino, a recently-laid off paraprofessional in the district and the parent of a high school sophomore, are both named plaintiffs in the suit. The suit was filed by New York State United Teachers, a statewide union organization.
Facing a projected shortfall of $28.5 million if state aid reductions continued, Schenectady district officials slashed hundreds of positions and limited its in-person instruction plans for this year.
The complaint argues many schools in the state struggled and failed to provide “the minimal opportunity for students to receive the sound, basic education” guaranteed under the constitution due to insufficient funding prior to the pandemic and that the reductions only exacerbate the problem.
“In the midst of this pandemic and unprecedented upheaval in New York’s public school district regarding their operations, their delivery of services, and their financial burdens… the state withheld, and has announced it will continue to withhold, essential state funding to public schools,” the complaint argues.
In a prepared statement, budget spokesman Freeman Klopott called the lawsuit “frivolous and uninformed” and claimed the state “has paid nearly 100 percent of funds for school districts.” The statement shifted the focus to the lack of federal funding and called on the teachers union to focus its efforts on Washington. The statement did say future state actions would take school district need into consideration.
“We will work with our partners in government to address any remaining gaps in federal assistance and, in the absence of federal funding, any future actions will take school district need into consideration,” Klopott said. “NYSUT should stop with the nonsense and lies, and focus on Washington and the federal funding we need, not distract attention.”
The specific arguments advanced by the union rests on the state’s budget-making process as outlined in the state constitution, which empower the governor to submit budget bills to the legislature that can then approve the bills by only striking or reducing specific items. When the Legislature passed a budget in April, lawmakers authorized the governor’s budget director to withhold payments if the revenues fall short of expenses.
State budget officials started reducing aid payments to school districts in July, including deferred reimbursements for expenses districts incurred last school year. Schenectady and districts across the Capital Region have all started to report the reduced payments; Schenectady lost out on over $600,000 in just one reduced payment this summer. The last state payment for BOCES aid from last school year was due at the start of the month, representing about 45 percent of the total BOCES aid payment for the year, according to the suit. The payment has come out with 20 percent withheld from districts.
The suit notes a $2.5 billion state aid payment to districts is scheduled for Sept. 30, the first major payment of core operating funding for the current school year.
“Here, the Legislature essentially abandoned its role, ceding significant budgetary powers to the Executive,” the complaint argues. “The Legislature’s actions were no only irrational, but also unconstitutional.”
The union’s attorney argues the state could tap around $2.5 billion in “rainy day reserves” to offset the funding shortfall to districts. They also point to $4.5 billion “in cash reserves and monetary settlement… (that) provides the state with a total of approximately $7 billion… to offset cuts to public schools.”
The complaint argues the process and mechanism established under the current budget authorizing the withholdings violates the constitution and asks for an order demanding the funding be released and barring any future withholdings.