Emily Roberts is the librarian at Pleasant Valley Elementary School. Also at Zoller Elementary. And Keane Elementary, too.
As one of four librarians split among the city school district’s 11 elementary schools, Roberts shuttles between buildings and the 50 or so classes she serves, giving students a chance to visit their school libraries about once every two weeks.
Jamaica Miles, a Schenectady parent and activist who has joined a lawsuit against the state that alleges insufficient school funding, didn’t expect to meet her child’s librarian when she visited Pleasant Valley Elementary on Monday. Her daughter goes to Zoller.
“I simply assumed that my child goes to a school that has a librarian that’s a dedicated librarian, just like I did when I was a child, and I found out today that’s not true,” said Miles, who joined as a state senator toured the Schenectady elementary school. “If our schools were getting all of the money that they needed, then we would have higher graduation rates. We’d have all of the resources that our schools need.”
State Sen. Robert Jackson, a Democrat who represents northern Manhattan, kicked off a statewide tour of schools in Schenectady on Monday, citing the school’s shared librarian, a dearth of computers and limited access to the school’s sensory room program as evidence of an underfunded district.
“That’s not acceptable,” Jackson said of the shared librarian. “Our kids need to learn how to read, know how to write, know how to do math — know how to work with each other.”
Jackson joined Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring, city school board members, and community activists and parents at Pleasant Valley, arguing that students in Schenectady are not receiving the “sound, basic education” promised under the state constitution. Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, joined the tour, as did staffers from the offices of Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam.
Jackson, who was the lead plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit that established the “sound, basic education” standard, was elected to the state Senate last year and is now pushing lawmakers to boost school funding by more than $4 billion in the coming years. He promised to visit schools in Rochester, Buffalo, Yonkers, New York City and rural parts of the state.
“A sound, basic education is an adequate education that the highest court in the state of New York said the children are entitled to, and they’re not getting that because they don’t have the funding to do that,” Jackson said.
Spring, who has agitated for increased state funding during his seven years as superintendent, said the district is unable to provide students even a basic level of education, pointing to the district’s state funding as the culprit.
“We have not yet met our mandate of providing the bare minimum,” Spring said.
Whether Schenectady schools are funded adequately is a question asked by a lawsuit inching its way through the state courts. After the state Court of Appeals in 2017 turned back an effort to use a handful of districts to make the case that schools across the state were underfunded, Miles and Janelle Hooks, another Schenectady parent, signed on to the lawsuit. The lawsuit has entered the discovery phase, as lawyers for the plaintiffs and the state work to develop a factual record.
Greg Little, an attorney who represents Miles, Hooks and plaintiffs in districts across the state, said Monday that district officials in Schenectady may have to sit for depositions as part of the discovery. He said the plaintiffs may also have to sit for interviews, but that attorneys on both sides of the case were debating the scope of those interviews.
The attorneys are working to build a case to show how the “inputs” — class sizes, available programs and other resources put into schools — in Schenectady and other districts are a cause of outcomes in test scores and graduation rates inconsistent with a basic education.
“[We have a case] as long as we can demonstrate that the lack of adequate resources are also a cause for a failure to have adequate test scores, adequate grad rates and a meaningful education that means the child has the background necessary to be a good citizen,” Little said.
Little said the plaintiffs’ attorneys were pressing to move as quickly as possible to trial in the case.
“We think time is of the essence,” Little said. “Children not getting an adequate education will only be in first grade once.”
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined his legislative agenda earlier this year, replete with progressive policies, he also took a swipe at the advocates for increased education, calling a landmark legal challenge they often cite — and the state’s core education funding formula — “ghosts of the past.”
Jackson, who spearheaded the lawsuit in the 1990s, on Monday said the suit’s promise of a sound education was still “alive and well.”