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What you need to know for 07/27/2017

Schenectady schools' civil rights complaint dismissed

Schenectady schools' civil rights complaint dismissed

Schenectady school officials have been denied in their first effort to force the state to change the
Schenectady schools' civil rights complaint dismissed
Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring makes a point during a June 2013 meeting to discuss how their school districts are disparately affected by the way New York state school aid is distributed.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Schenectady school officials have been denied in their first effort to force the state to change the way it distributes school aid.

The federal Office of Civil Rights rejected the district’s complaint against the state, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.

He said he was told Tuesday. He announced the decision Wednesday.

He isn’t giving up, though. Now he will send the complaint to the federal Department of Justice.

“I don’t think it should leave us daunted or downhearted at all,” he said.

The district spent months writing the complaint and held well-attended meetings to solicit parents and taxpayers to sign on with descriptions of how the aid distribution hurt them or their children.

Spring then hand-delivered the complaint with much fanfare. But the Office of Civil Rights never opened an investigation.

After months of silence, the office dismissed the complaint without investigation.

Spring had originally intended to send the complaint first to the Department of Justice, but changed the destination at the last minute because the Office of Civil Rights seemed to be a better choice politically, he said.

Unfortunately for him, politics works both ways. Politicians opposed to the complaint had time to lobby against it as the office considered whether to open an investigation, Spring said.

Spring said he began to worry about that as time dragged on.

“It’s something we had suspected,” he said of the rejection.

He added that he suspected state officials pushed the office to not investigate the complaint.

“I would not doubt that for a second,” he said. “Things like that are very political.”

The office eventually decided it could not investigate the complaint because the federal Education Department — of which the office is part — doesn’t give school aid directly to the governor or Legislature, Spring said.

Funds go to the state Department of Education, which releases them in the form of grants. That money is not alleged to be given out in a discriminatory manner in the complaint.

The district alleges that foundation aid — the main aid distributed by the state — is handed out in a discriminatory manner.

Spring has repeatedly said he doesn’t think the discrimination is intentional. But, he said, the more white students there are in a district, the more likely it is that the district will get a greater percentage of foundation aid.

Districts with a majority of nonwhite students are less likely to get the average percentage of state aid, Spring said.

The districts that get the smallest percentage of aid, as calculated by the state aid formula, are generally also the poorest. They tend to have less political representation, which could play a role in explaining why they get less aid.

The complaint focused on percentage of aid because almost no districts in the state receive the full amount of aid as dictated by the state aid formula. However, districts receive widely varying percentages of their aid. Schenectady gets 54 percent of what the formula says it should get; richer and whiter districts such as Niskayuna get a much larger percentage.

Spring wasn’t impressed by the Office for Civil Rights’ reason for not investigating the situation.

The office noted that federal funds go to the state Department of Education, not the state politicians.

Spring said the office said, in essence, “We don’t actually give the check to the governor.”

He said that shouldn’t mean the state’s politicians have immunity for the way they hand out education funds.

“I think it’s a very neat trick to have the governor and the Legislature avoid accountability by the way they write the check,” he said.

Now Spring is focusing on the Department of Justice.

He’s happier with that agency, saying it has “more teeth” for enforcement if it decides against the state.

“There’s a potential greater upside there,” he said.

If the Department of Justice rejects the complaint, he will send it to HUD, he said.

“This is not where our plans end,” he said. “There is also a Plan C, and if need be we’ll come up with a Plan D, a Plan E … ”

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