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State sidesteps Schenectady lawsuit claiming underfunded schools

State sidesteps Schenectady lawsuit claiming underfunded schools

Parents say district is being shortchanged
State sidesteps Schenectady lawsuit claiming underfunded schools
Students in the Schenectady High School library during an after-school program.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

ALBANY -- State attorneys have sidestepped claims by Schenectady parents who, in December, joined a statewide lawsuit over school funding.

Specifically, the state lawyers have moved for a judge to dismiss the effort to use a handful of school districts to justify claims of broader problems with the state’s education funding system.

A lawyer for Schenectady parents Jamaica Miles and Janelle Hooks said their legal team plans to ask the judge to allow lawyers to begin discovery of educational deficiencies in Schenectady and other districts named in the lawsuit, even as they work to resolve the dispute over the statewide funding claim.

“The substance of the claims, particularly in Schenectady, it doesn’t touch those claims,” attorney Greg Little said of the state’s first response since Schenectady parents joined a complaint filed in 2014.

In their filing earlier this week, lawyers for the state acknowledged the Schenectady parents are making district-specific allegations that can be further litigated, but they also sought to quash any arguments that extend statewide.

In their December complaint, the Schenectady parents alleged the state’s failure to follow its school funding formula, called foundation aid, has deprived the school district of the resources needed to provide students the basic education to which they are guaranteed under the state constitution. The annual shortfall, based on the state's formula, is about $4 billion, according to the state Education Department. Schenectady schools receive about $40 million less each year than is called for in the state's formula.

The suit, originally filed by parents of students in New York City and Syracuse schools, expanded after the Court of Appeals shot down an attempt to use those two districts as the basis for a broader statewide argument that schools were short changed last year.

In June, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled that plaintiffs needed to make claims with “district specificity” and present evidence from “each school district they claim falls below the constitutional minimum” level of state funding.

So, attorneys who have pursued lawsuits seeking greater education funding for decades found families in other districts -- including Schenectady -- to join the suit. 

In its first response to the updated complaint, lawyers in the state Attorney General’s Office argued the judge should dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims that the funding deficiencies are broader than is spelled out in specific districts. Pointing to the Court of Appeals decisions last year, the state said the plaintiffs’ attorneys were again looking to use too few districts to make too broad an argument about state's education funding.

“[The claim] is premised on the same legal theories and the same facts as those asserted in the causes of action dismissed by the Court of Appeals,” the state’s lawyers wrote in the motion filed this week. “Plaintiffs defy the Court of Appeals in asserting such a claim.”

Little, who represents the Schenectady parents, said he wanted the case to move forward as quickly as possible. Once the judge in the case orders discovery to begin, attorneys on both sides of the case will have access to school district data and information and will be able to interview witnesses, including Schenectady school district staff. 

“We will be asking the court to let us proceed with discovery immediately,” Little said. 

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