Dozens of Schenectady residents signed on to a civil rights complaint Tuesday, telling the U.S. Department of Justice that they and their children were discriminated against by the state of New York.
The complaint alleges that the state gives more money to predominantly white school districts, leaving less for districts like Schenectady, which have many minority students.
Parent Jamaica Miles carried her 2-year-old daughter to Tuesday night’s meeting at Central Park International Magnet School so that she could be one of the first to sign the complaint.
She said the state has shorted Schenectady on money that her son desperately needs. He’s 9 years old, in third grade and falling behind because he can’t read at grade level.
There’s not enough money to get him the help he needs to catch up, she said.
“Twice a year I have to go to meetings to determine if he’s eligible for services,” Miles said. “The children that are the worst off get the priority. Increased funding would increase the range of services that are available.”
She’s hoping the Department of Justice investigates quickly, before her daughter starts school.
“I only have three years,” she said. “There needs to be a change.”
Many school superintendents have complained that poor districts don’t get as much aid, based on the state’s formula, as rich districts. But Schenectady Superintendent Laurence Spring said that he researched the issue and discovered that poor districts with minority students get much less aid than poor white districts.
“Race and poverty go hand-in-hand. So it’s not just poor districts getting less of their state aid. The more white students you have in your district, the likelier it is you will receive more of your state aid,” he said.
Most school districts do not receive all of the aid that the state formula says they should get. But Schenectady received 52 percent of its aid, while the typical school district received 82 percent of its aid, Spring said.
If Schenectady got 82 percent of its aid, it would get an additional $38 million every year.
Spring is gathering signatures from parents and residents who believe the loss of that money has hurt them.
“We’re asking [for] anyone whose child has not received all the services — if your child has not received that sound basic education,” he said. “If you had to go elsewhere to get those services. If your child did not learn to read, did not pass a Regents, did not graduate.”
He’s also looking for residents who have been hurt by the high school taxes that the district has imposed.
Taxes could be cut by one-third while still adding reading specialists and counselors if Schenectady got the additional $38 million, Spring said.
“This is not just a school issue,” he said. “What impact has the elevated tax rate had? Unfriendly to business. Suppressing home values. Foreclosures and evictions.”
He will be collecting signatures for the next two weeks. Those who sign agree to answer questions from the Department of Justice as it investigates the complaint. Spring stressed that the process is more intensive than simply signing a petition.
A retired teacher led the crowd to begin signing after giving Spring a standing ovation.
“I am very grateful you are here tonight. It’s nice you picked up the ball,” said retired Schenectady school district music teacher Myron Hermance. “As I was reading this, I thought, I must be down in Mississippi. This is no different from the way it was there.”
He then stood up and turned to the crowd.
“He needs our support!” he shouted. “Let’s sign whatever he needs us to sign!”
The crowd cheered, and a line formed at once.
Most of the signers were parents whose children needed more help in school. But several people volunteered to sign the complaint as distressed taxpayers.
Larry Pisarski said his taxes have nearly tripled in the past 11 years.
“I hear people saying they’re moving out,” he said. “My taxes have gone up too much.”
He added that the taxes have, at times, become a personal burden.
“I lost my job in 2008,” he said. “I became disabled in a car accident in 2012. I’m looking at less money, can’t go out and make more, and I have to pay my taxes.”