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Parents get platform to fight school underfunding

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Queens Board of Education member Terri...

By Kathianne Boniello

The city Board of Education is going to give parents a chance to sound off on what the board describes as the state’s historical underfunding of city schools — directly into the mailboxes of Albany legislators.

Queens Board of Education member Terri Thomson said at a public forum Monday night at John Bowne High School in Flushing that the board would provide thousands of postcards from the group Alliance for Quality Education urging Albany to reform its school-funding formulas.

The postcards, entitled “Our Children Can’t Wait to Receive a Quality Education,” were just some of the literature available at the forum on a January state Supreme Court decision in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s argument that city schools are underfunded by the state. Schools Chancellor Harold Levy also attended the forum.

“We are going to get these postcards into every school via superintendents, school boards and community groups,” Thomson said. “This year we have got to fight.”

The decision by state Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of parents and advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit against the state in 1993, has been considered a landmark ruling urging the state to correct its arcane school funding formula.

Throughout most of the state, school districts generate revenue through property taxes. 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. Educational needs, such as services required to help students learn to speak English or to meet the state’s newly raised academic standards, are not considered in funding decisions, the CFE complains.

The city Board of Education has 38 percent of the state’s public school population but receives 35.5 percent of the state’s total educational budget, the CFE says.

The court decision was particularly important for Queens, which arguably has had the most overcrowded schools in the city for years.

Thomson, Levy, Michael Rebell of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and Regina Eaton of the Alliance for Quality Education outlined the terms of the decision for the roughly 80 parents and educators who attended Monday night as well as the city’s need for more funding.

Thomson said, “The way the funding formula has allocated funds to our schools for many years was political, and Judge DeGrasse deemed it unconstitutional.”

“We have the children, but we don’t have the proportionate amount of funding,” said Levy. “We have the kids with the greatest need — that’s what this lawsuit is about. Getting our fair share.”

DeGrasse’s exhaustive 191-page decision provides a comprehensive overview of the fight between the city and state over funding, as well as the faults of the city’s 1.1 million-student public school education system. The judge ordered the state to remedy the funding situation by Sept. 15 and ordered both sides to appear in court in June to report on the progress of the reforms.

But since Gov. George Pataki appealed DeGrasse’s decision, the case has been tied up in the courts, and Rebell said the likelihood of the state being forced to conform to the Sept. 15 deadline lessens every day.

“We don’t have to wait,” Rebell said of the state’s appeal. “We don’t need this appeal to get a sound basic education.”

The Alliance for Quality Education postcards, addressed to Pataki and to a constituent’s state senator or representative, support funding for smaller class size, space for universal pre-kindergarten, and the construction and repair of school buildings.

One of the worst aspects of the city system, DeGrasse said in his decision, is run-down school buildings, a condition aggravated by overcrowding. The judge specifically cited Queens, where every school district is overcrowded, pointing out that stopgap measures used in the borough had sometimes created a “distorted” educational program.

Thomson showed statistics that said despite the city’s efforts to add 42,000 classroom seats by 2004 in Queens, the borough would still see a shortfall of 32,000 seats.

Levy said: “I don’t begin to understand how we can tolerate not having a seat for every child — that’s a public scandal.”

To contact the Alliance for Quality Education, call 222-1089 or 518-465-4600, Ext. 104.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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