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Queens pols praise ruling on school aid

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The Jan. 10 decision by Manhattan Judge Leland DeGrasse in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of parents and advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit in 1993, brought praise from borough politicians and city officials.

Gov. George Pataki said Tuesday he would appeal the CFE decision, keeping the battle in the courts. During his introduction to the new state budget, Pataki emphasized he would try to simplify the state's educational funding formula, which he said would provide the state's five largest cities with additional aid.

Borough President Claire Shulman, who attended a rally in support of the CFE at the beginning of the seven-month trial, called the decision "a major victory" for the city's students. City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) also applauded the ruling.

The decision capped a busy educational week in the city as both Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, using their respective State of the State and State of the City addresses, proposed increased funding and expanded school programs.

DeGrasse's exhaustive 191-page decision offers 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 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.

One of the worst aspects of the city system, DeGrasse said, is run-down school buildings and facilities, a condition made worse by overcrowding. The judge specifically cited Queens, where every school district is overcrowded, pointing out that stopgap measures used in the borough to combat the problem had sometimes created "a distorted" educational program.

"Overcrowding in the city's public schools is both a cause of facilities' deterioration and an impediment to remedial measures," the judge said in his decision. "Overcrowding makes it difficult to conduct proper repairs without severe displacement of students."

While DeGrasse declared that the education city students now get is "so deficient it falls beneath" the state constitutional standard of providing a "sound, basic education," the decision placed the blame on the state's method of funding large cities. The judge also ruled the city could be forced to make up the spending gap that now exists between what the state gives and what the city needs if the state Legislature compels it to.

Throughout most of the state, school districts get most of their 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.

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

Michael Rebell, executive director and counsel for CFE, declared the decision a victory. The CFE, a nonprofit Manhattan group founded by Robert Jackson, filed the suit in 1993 to challenge the way the Legislature funds city school districts in the state.

DeGrasse's ruling followed a seven-month trial that was held after an appeal court ruled in 1995 that the CFE could pursue its challenge on constitutional grounds.

"The court's decision is clear, so we hope that the Legislature will work with us in getting to work immediately on a new funding system," Rebell said.

Shulman said that "after many years the court has recognized that schoolchildren here in Queens and the rest of the city must receive their fair share of education funding from the state."

A joint statement from Schools Chancellor Harold Levy and the city Board of Education called DeGrasse's ruling pivotal for the city.

"This landmark decision is a defining moment for all our public schoolchildren," they said. "The decision does not come a moment too soon as we confront the challenge of preparing all children to meet the high standards set by the state."

City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a mayoral candidate, said "from 1987 through 2000, the city would have received an additional $4 billion if it received aid just equal to its share of enrollment."

In addition to highlighting the city's crumbling, overcrowded schools as an obstacle to the "sound basic education" of its students, DeGrasse also cited outdated books, a lack of computer resources, large class sizes and the city's teacher shortage.

"The majority of the city's public school students leave high school unprepared for more than low-paying work, unprepared for college, and unprepared for the duties placed upon them by a democratic society," DeGrasse said. "The schools have broken a covenant with students and with society."

The CFE ruling came a week after Pataki delivered his seventh State of the State address, in which he outlined a wide range of statewide educational reforms that focused on funding.

Pataki announced a new "Flex Aid" plan to increase school financing and provide localities with greater direction over the state money they receive. The governor also said he would seek to double the funding for the "Teachers of Tomorrow" initiative to help recruit more qualified teachers.

In a followup to the state's 1996 effort to revamp the city's decentralized school system that gives authority to 32 local school boards and a central Board of Education, Pataki said he would seek to push legislation to "provide the mayors and city governing boards of our largest cities with greater oversight responsibility for their urban school systems."

"As we provide more funding, and more flexibility in spending it, we also need to establish more accountability in the system," Pataki said.

While Schools Chancellor Harold Levy and Board of Education President William Thompson praised Pataki's plans, state Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) was critical.

Clark said Pataki's suggestions for simplifying the state's complicated, multi-formula method of determining school funding constituted a block grant. Block grants, she said, are traditionally used to cut funding.

"I will not support any attempt to shift and shaft public schools out of the resources they so desperately need," said Clark, who also attended the CFE rally at the beginning of the trial.

DeGrasse's ruling appears to challenge the idea that increased state funding automatically equals reform.

"The state's recent increases in school funding can only begin to address longstanding problems in New York City's public schools," DeGrasse said in his ruling. "These increases have been enabled by unprecedented budget surpluses. They have not been coupled with the structural reform necessary to assure that adequate resources are provided to New York City's public schools on a sustained basis.

"Since there has been no fundamental change in the structure and operation of the state education finance system," his decision said, "there is no guarantee that recent increases are sufficient or will be sustained."

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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