Lawyers in a statewide lawsuit over New York education funding are asking the court to grant the Schenectady City School District special relief from threatened state aid cuts, arguing massive layoffs and program cuts imposed under the threat of aid reductions are causing irreparable harm to students.
The lawyers in a motion for preliminary injunction filed early Friday argue that Schenectady students were already deprived an adequate education prior to the pandemic and that budget cuts this year have only exacerbated the daily harm to students.
In the motion, filed in the Manhattan-based state supreme court where the case resides, the lawyers asked for an injunction preventing the state from carrying out a 20 percent aid cut Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said may be necessary this year. The request is tailored specifically to Schenectady schools and seeks to maintain the status quo within the district as the litigation that predates the pandemic continues.
The mere threat of an aid cut, the filing argues, forced Schenectady district officials at the start of the school year to lay off over 400 teachers and staff, unwind numerous support programs, eliminate special mental health workers, cut its pre-kindergarten program and shift all but a handful of secondary students to virtual learning only.
“In a district where severe and chronic underfunding has already deprived students of the educational resources they need to learn, this latest move by the state all but guarantees that a generation of Schenectady students will be denied the opportunity to access an adequate education, and will suffer educational setbacks from which they may never recover,” the attorneys wrote in the filing.
Jamaica Miles, a Schenectady school parent and local activist, in 2018 joined an ongoing suit against the state involving parents from New York City, Syracuse and other districts. Miles’ entry into the case placed the district at the center of a fight over whether the state’s education funding system fulfilled the constitutional obligation that students are provided a “sound basic” public education.
“We need positions reinstated, we need resources for our schools,” Miles said at the city’s Dec. 2 school board meeting, where she suggested a new motion would be forthcoming soon. “Our children and families deserve a quality education, especially now. Our teachers need the support and resources to be able to teach our children, especially now.”
Miles’ attorneys, from the New Jersey-based Education Law Center and New York firm White & Case, are part of a larger legal team that represents other plaintiffs across the state.
After the motion was filed Friday morning, Miles said it represented “an opportunity for parents to have their voices heard” and called on district officials to start preparing to reinstate positions, programs and services that were cut in the event the court sided with her.
“In the best case scenario there will be that opportunity, so the district needs to be prepared,” she said of undoing the cuts.
It’s not clear how the court will respond to the request or how attorneys for the state will respond, but Miles and her lawyers hope if granted, the injunction would remove the uncertainty that has left district officials unable to fund the eliminated programs and positions.
In the underlying litigation, district staff have been interviewed over the past two years and provided other evidence about the programs offered in the district and the outcomes of students. The filing also for the first time publicly lays out the plaintiffs’ broader argument that Schenectady schools, due to insufficient state funding dating back many years, are unable to provide their students a sound education. A lengthy analysis builds the case that Schenectady students require higher levels of funding and support to overcome poverty-related trauma, and the state has not lived up to its obligation to provide that funding.
“For these students, the opportunity for an adequate education is quite literally a lifeline and their greatest shot at a real future,” the lawyers wrote. “The trauma these children face creates significant educational hurdles, which the district must help them overcome if they are to have an opportunity to learn.”
The filing highlights multiple witnesses from the district, including top district officials and a recently-retired school principal, who testified that “despite their best effort, they are unable to provide all of their students the opportunity for an adequate education.”
“The evidence further shows that despite the Herculean efforts of district officials and employees, Schenectady cannot meet every student’s need, as the constitution requires,” the lawyers wrote.
The filing calls for the immediate relief “in order to preserve even the unacceptable status quo,” arguing the district cuts that have followed from the state’s threat of budget cuts – which the filing contends district officials had no choice but to act on – represent an immediate risk that Schenectady children will suffer more harm before the orginal issues under litigation can be resolved.
The attorneys argue Schenectady officials had to take on additional expenses to manage the pandemic, including buying protective equipment, ensuring technological access for students and delivering meals to kids, without any additional state support.
“Plaintiffs by this motion request that the court simply maintain the status quo and not allow the state to withdraw essential educational resources from Schenectady’s students by withholding an additional 20 percent from an already inadequate budget,” the lawyers argue. “The court can and should issue a preliminary injunction to prevent irreparable harm to Schenectady students.”
State budget officials have previously suggested Schenectady’s decision to layoff staff and slash programs was “premature,” and while the state withheld money from early payments to districts this year, recent aid payments have been made in full. Cuomo has also indicated aid cuts that do come to fruition would account for district need, but state officials have not detailed how they would do that.
Schenectady district officials have countered, and the filing reiterated Friday, that since the district is more reliant on state aid for its budget than most other districts and the impact of a 20 percent cut would be so dire, leaders had no choice but to brace for the potential cuts. They also point to funds that already have been withheld from the district.
“The withholding has wreaked havoc over Schenectady schools,” the lawyers wrote. “Each day that funding is withheld causes irreparable harm to the students and seeks to erase every gain that Schenectady has worked tirelessly for in the last five years.”