JPS Lawsuit Against State To Begin Sept. 29

A lawsuit involving Jamestown Public Schools and the state of New York will make its way to the courtroom this fall.

Parents and students of eight small city school districts – including JPS – who have experienced the negative effects of inadequate state aid will have a chance to present their case in a trial set to begin Sept. 29 in Albany.

Originating in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity that gave rise to the state’s 2007 institution of the New York Foundation Aid Formula, the lawsuit – known as Maisto v. New York – is a continuation of the struggle by school districts to obtain an equitable distribution of state aid to fund daily operations. Plaintiffs are making the claim that state cuts in education funding are depriving students of the “sound basic education” that they are entitled to under the New York Constitution.

Jamestown’s involvement with Maisto v. New York has spanned nearly seven years, originating during the superintendency of Ray Fashano. According to Joseph DiMaio, Board of Education president, Jamestown’s involvement in Maisto v. New York came about through its membership in the New York State Association of Small City School Districts, where a coalition of 13 to 14 districts was formed to sue the state over a lack of equitable distribution in state aid.

“It was never about the funding itself; it’s about the funding inequity,” DiMaio said.

He added that, though New York state is ranked first in the nation in terms of the amount of money spent on its education system, it is ranked between 42nd and 45th in the nation in terms of funding equity.

This has been exacerbated by the fact that the foundation aid funding, which was guaranteed to districts in increasing amounts over a five-year period, has been frozen since 2009-10.

Additionally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made no mention of unfreezing foundation aid in his 2014-15 executive budget proposal.

Tim Mains, JPS superintendent, said the state’s decision to freeze foundation aid has had long-term implications on the progress of Maisto v. New York into the courtroom.

“My belief is the lawsuit might have been dropped had the state followed through with foundation aid,” Mains said. “There was a time where (the districts) almost backed away from the suit, but they have plunged ahead with the freezing of foundation aid.”

Mains said only eight of the 13 to 14 original districts involved in the lawsuit remain due to the financial burden that must be borne by districts in order to keep the lawsuit funded.

“We set aside funds in our budget specifically to help pay for the lawsuit,” Mains said. “I don’t know exactly the total amount that we have spent or what the annual allocation is but, to me, it is a small investment to make. I don’t have an expense problem, I have a revenue problem. And when we have a constitutional guarantee that districts are to provide a sound and basic education to all students in New York state, I have a difficult time fulfilling that without the revenue necessary to do so.”

He also said the outcome of Maisto v. New York could have statewide implications on the way New York schools are funded, leaving much at stake for the school districts funding the lawsuit.

“Even though eight small city districts are funding this, we’re not the only ones who will benefit from it if we are successful in what we’ve filed with the court,” Mains added. “If we win, everybody will get a more equitable distribution of aid.”

The eight school districts in the Maisto v. New York case are Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica.

According to a press release by the Education Law Center, all eight districts have low property wealth and income and very high concentrations of at-risk students and students with special needs. All have significant shortfalls in school aid, totaling $255 million, as a direct result of the state’s freezing of funding under the New York Foundation Aid Formula. As a consequence, the districts have cut, or simply cannot provide, sufficient teachers, support staff and other essential programs and services – particularly for students at-risk of academic failure, according to the release.