Day 1 – January 21, 2015
More than six years after the initial complaint was filed, the trial in Maisto et al. v. State of New York commenced on January 21, 2015 with opening statements and testimony from the first witness.
William Reynolds of Albany-based Bond, Schoeneck and King and Gregory Little of White and Case opened for the plaintiffs. In their initial presentation to the court, the Maisto plaintiffs outlined the applicable framework established in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case, which ruled that the State of New York was not providing a sound basic education to New York City students in violation of the State Constitution. Counsel then summarized the evidence plaintiffs will present regarding inadequate student outputs (as measured by graduation and dropout rates and standardized test scores), insufficient inputs (including teachers and staff, physical facilities, and learning essentials such as textbooks and technology), and the causal connection between these elements and lack of funding in the Maisto districts. The plaintiffs’ opening statement also addressed the State’s defenses to the claim of constitutional violation, emphasizing that it cannot pass responsibility for this failure to educators, parents, or the recent economic downturn, and explaining that increased funding would make a significant difference in educational outcomes for students in the high need Maisto districts.
Assistant Attorney General Richard Lombardo delivered the opening statement for the State. Mr. Lombardo denied the claim that the Maisto districts receive insufficient funding to provide students the opportunity for a sound basic education. The State asserted that plaintiffs will be unable to prove inadequacies in educational inputs that rise to the level of a constitutional violation, and disputed the plaintiffs’ position that the State should be required to fully fund Foundation Aid, an education funding formula that was frozen by the State in 2009, followed by cuts to foundation aid in subsequent years. The State also previewed its plan to introduce expert witnesses who will testify that increased funding is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on student outcomes in the Maisto districts.
After the court heard opening statements, plaintiffs called Dr. Nicole Williams, Superintendent of the Poughkeepsie City School District, as their first witness. Dr. Williams described the high need demographics of the Poughkeepsie student population, which has a poverty rate exceeding 80%. She testified to the impact of funding cuts over the past several years, which have required Poughkeepsie to reduce its kindergarten program to a half day and prevented it from providing adequate services to students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students who need academic interventions because they are struggling to meet minimum state standards. Dr. Williams emphasized that her district is unable to hire sufficient numbers of teachers and other critical staff, to provide learning essentials such as educational technology, and to maintain its aging facilities.
Day 2 – January 22, 2015
On the second day of the Maisto trial, the court heard additional testimony from Poughkeepsie Superintendent Nicole Williams. Dr. Williams explained that students from poverty backgrounds—the vast majority in Poughkeepsie—need more programs and services than those from wealthier districts to support their success in school. These include social and emotional supports as well as academic services, both of which Poughkeepsie is unable to provide at adequate levels. Dr. Williams concluded that it would not be possible for her district to close opportunity gaps and reach its goals for improvement without increased resources.
Plaintiffs next called two additional witnesses from the Poughkeepsie City School District: Board of Education President, Ralph Coates, and Executive Director of Family and Student Support Services, Vanessa Weeks. Mr. Coates detailed the alarming economic situation of the district, enumerated dramatic reductions in programming and staff due solely to lack of funds, and explained the tremendous impact of these cuts on Poughkeepsie students and families. Ms. Weeks, a longtime Director of Special Education in Poughkeepsie, acknowledged that Poughkeepsie is failing to properly educate its population of students with disabilities. She identified full day kindergarten, increased Academic Intervention Services, and sufficient numbers of social workers as three essential resources necessary to adequately serve Poughkeepsie’s students with disabilities.
Day 3 – January 23, 2015
At the end of the first week of trial, the Maisto plaintiffs called witnesses from the Utica City School District to testify to its educational conditions. Lori Eccleston, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, described the unique and elevated needs of Utica’s student population, which she said includes approximately 15% refugee students who speak numerous different languages. Ms. Eccleston recounted the drastic personnel cuts the district has been forced to make for budgetary reasons, including teachers, administrators, social workers, guidance counselors, and Academic Intervention Services providers. She testified that these cuts have led to unacceptably high class sizes, lack of compliance with Academic Intervention Services mandates, and reductions in numerous other programs, such as night and summer school, that were targeted to improving outcomes for high need and vulnerable student groups.
Utica Superintendent Bruce Karam explained that his district is facing dire economic conditions at a time when it is responsible for educating a growing and extremely high need student population. Acknowledging that graduation rates and test scores are too low, despite the efforts of teachers, he testified that additional teachers and support staff—including social workers, guidance counselors, and parent liaisons—as well as programs for at-risk students, are needed. Superintendent Karam explained that current funding is insufficient and that additional resources would improve student outcomes.
Day 4 – January 26, 2015
Week two of the trial began with testimony from Jesse Joy, Director of Curriculum for the Jamestown City School District. Ms. Joy testified that Jamestown has seen an increasing rate of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch over the last several years, and that the city has low property wealth and ability to raise revenue through taxation. Ms. Joy testified that Jamestown schools are failing, and performing in the bottom 5% with respect to students with disabilities and English Language Learners.
Ms. Joy testified that Jamestown does not have sufficient resources to meet student needs. She explained that the district spends approximately 25% less per pupil than the state average because it does not have the funds to spend more. She recounted that the district has cut a significant number of staff positions to close the budget deficit, including instructional coaches who helped teachers serve their students effectively, administrators, teachers and counselors. Ms. Joy testified that the school district has no social workers to address the needs of at-risk students. She also testified that Jamestown has incomplete remedial programs, having no Academic Intervention Services in Math nor in additional subjects such as Science.
Day 5 – January 28, 2015
Tim Mains, Superintendent of Jamestown City School District testified today. Superintendent Mains described the “overarching” challenge of poverty in Jamestown, and the obstacles this poses for the district’s students. He explained that despite the hard work by staff, the district is not experiencing success in academic outcomes. He testified that test scores are particularly poor, with less than 40% of students succeeding, and that Jamestown is ranked very low among New York districts for graduation rate.
Superintendent Mains testified to the pressing need in Jamestown for teachers to provide increased intervention services and close the gaps with which its students enter school. He also testified on the need for increased support staff, such as social workers, to serve the social and emotional needs of its students. He explained that children who come from poverty backgrounds need more learning time and more resources in general, and testified that additional resources are necessary to improve outcomes in Jamestown.
Day 6 – January 29, 2015
The second week of testimony in the Maisto trial closed with witness Paul Padalino, Superintendent of the Kingston City School District. Dr. Padalino explained that Kingston serves a diverse population of students with different learning abilities and cultural backgrounds, including a high number of students with disabilities. He testified that Kingston is failing groups of students because it doesn’t have programs in place to address their needs.
Dr. Padalino explained that in order to close budget gaps in recent years, the district has closed several elementary schools and significantly reduced staff. He testified that implementing universal pre-K, which Kingston lacks, would be a top priority if the district had more resources. He also testified that the district needs resources to fully implement an inclusion model for students with disabilities, and to increase the number of guidance counselors and of family outreach workers for ELL students. Dr. Padalino testified that economically disadvantaged students can achieve better outcomes, but this requires increased resources.