Students in the Schenectady school district have taken legal action to prevent the State of New York from implementing a threatened 20% cut to state school aid. The State’s decision to withhold the aid in August forced Schenectady to lay off over 400 teachers and support staff, almost 25% of the district’s workforce.
In a motion filed in the Supreme Court in Brooklyn on December 11, the Schenectady students asked Judge Lucy Billings to stop the State of New York from making the 20% cut to prevent further educational devastation in the 10,000-student district. The district serves a community with the 13th highest child poverty rate in the nation, and the majority of the district’s enrollment are students of color.
Students and parents in Schenectady, along with those in New York City and Syracuse, are plaintiffs in New York Students for Education Rights (NYSER) v. New York, a lawsuit filed in 2014 challenging the State’s failure to adequately fund public education in those districts. The Schenectady motion was filed as part of the pending NYSER litigation.
The planned 20% state aid cut has dealt a crushing blow to the Schenectady school budget, already decimated by a $300 million shortfall in Foundation Formula aid over the last five years and the $5.7 million “pandemic cut” New York enacted earlier this year. Early in the pandemic, the State cut state aid to Schenectady and other districts in an amount equivalent to their allocation of federal emergency funds under the CARES Act, depriving the district of the additional resources urgently needed to address the impacts of COVID-19 on students and schools.
“We were already not receiving the full amount of aid owed to us under the Foundation Formula. Then the State used our CARES Act funds, which were meant to be an addition to education funding, to instead fill a state budget hole they created. And now on top of all that, the State has threatened us with a 20% state aid cut,” said Jamaica Miles, a Schenectady parent and NYSER plaintiff. “We’re doing everything we can to stop the State from causing any further harm to our children by bankrupting our schools.”
In their motion to Judge Billings, the Schenectady students’ detail how their education will continue to be “irreparably harmed” by the 20% aid cut. The district currently lacks funding to provide intervention services to 5,600 students, preschool to eligible four-year-olds, a core reading program to students in the early grades, and adequate social workers and guidance counselors to provide students with emotional, physical and other critical supports.
In August, the State announced that it had begun withholding 20% of aid payments and threatened to make those cuts permanent moving forward. The threat amounts to an estimated $29 million cut to Schenectady’s school budget. As a result, the district was forced to close schools and shift all students in grades 7-12 to virtual learning, causing the education of many students, who do not have access to a stable internet connection or devices, to be interrupted.
Schenectady has laid off over 400 staff members, wiping out all of the positions created over the last five years, including teachers, support staff, paraprofessionals, administrative staff, clerical staff, and more. Class sizes have increased over already excessive pre-pandemic levels. Students also will not receive intervention services provided by the district over the last three years. In addition to the academic and social-emotional costs of these cuts, they will also impact many students’ access to a healthy meal.
“An adequate education is a constitutional right that is being denied to the school children of Schenectady in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Gregory G. Little, Chief Trial Counsel for Education Law Center, NYSER co-counsel. “These are students of color who are living in poverty and deserve appropriate programs, support staff, class sizes and other student services that have always been necessary but are now more important than ever.”
The court filing also details how the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the need for additional resources to ensure Schenectady students have access to remote instruction, school buildings can be safely reopened, and students experiencing trauma, homelessness, family unemployment, and other pandemic impacts can receive the support they need.
“The 20% aid cut will erase all of the progress Schenectady had made in recent years and set the district further back than it was a decade ago,” Mr. Little said. “The pandemic poses challenges to all facets of society, but that does not give the State carte blanche to shirk its constitutional responsibilities to the school children of Schenectady.”
The legal team representing the plaintiffs includes attorneys from Education Law Center and global law firm White & Case LLP, which offered its services pro bono.
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