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Coalition asks judge to overhaul school funding

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Plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the way New York state allocates money for the city schools are asking a State Supreme Court judge to dismantle the state's system of funding school districts and create a new, more equitable arrangement.

"This case, if we win, is going to enormously benefit the kids of New York City," said Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the coalition of advocacy groups that filed the landmark lawsuit. Coalition representatives briefed reporters on the status of the lawsuit four days before closing arguments were scheduled to take place on July 27.

In a trial lasting seven months, the coalition has asked Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse to order the state to abandon its education finance system and conduct a one-year study to create new, objective ways of determining which school districts would get how much.

The coalition contends that the state's funding system puts New York City students at a disadvantage to their counterparts in nearby suburbs and in other districts throughout the state. The Board of Education, which runs the city's schools, has 38 percent of the state's public school population but receives just 35.5 percent of the state's total budget for educating students, the coalition says.

In most districts throughout the state, the school district generates its own revenues through property taxes. But in the state's five biggest cities - New York, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Yonkers - the state determines how much money is given to run each city's public schools.

At the heart of the discrepancy in funding is the way the state determines how much money the cities will get, the coalition says. Instead of conducting a true assessment of education needs, said CFE lawyer Joseph Wayland, the state comes up with a predetermined amount of money it is willing to give New York City and then works backward to determine how the money will be spent.

"The whole thing is a charade," Wayland said. "It's not a mystery, but it's one they've kept a secret for a long time."

The state, which is being defended in the lawsuit by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and the Atlanta firm of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, contends that the Board of Education has wasted millions in funding because of inefficiency. It also maintains that performance levels among city children do not differ from similar students in districts throughout the state and that city students are not denied a fair education.

Closing arguments, including both sides' responses to briefings filed earlier this week, were scheduled for July 27 in Manhattan and a decision by the judge was expected by the fall.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, represented pro bono by the Manhattan firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett submitted its summary of findings to the court Monday. The 1,200-page document summarizes months of testimony by dozens of witnesses, including nationally recognized education experts and the chief financial officer of Bell Atlantic, who testified about the technological skills the company requires of its employees.

A third of the city's elementary students are functionally illiterate, 40 percent of ninth-grade students do not go on to earn a high school diploma, and more than half of those in the City University of New York system need remedial help, the coalition argues in its case. The CFE says this is the direct result of the Board of Education's lack of funds to hire enough qualified teachers, build enough classrooms, and maintain libraries and laboratories.

Queens politicians and school officials threw their support behind the Campaign for Fiscal Equity by participating in a rally with the group on the day of the trial's opening seven months ago. Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), and state Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) are among the officials who support the CFE.

Among the concerns repeatedly voiced by officials is the need for more classroom space in Queens, where many schools conduct classes in open hallways, former closets, or are forced to carve up lunchroom space for classes. These stopgap measures do little to help students succeed in academics and beyond, officials say.

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