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Queens angered at reversal of landmark schools ruling

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Queens legislators and education advocates expressed outrage Tuesday afternoon after a state appellate court threw out a landmark 2001 education ruling requiring increased state funding of the city’s public schools.

The 4-to-1 decision by the state Appellate Division’s First District came nearly a decade after the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a nonprofit Manhattan coalition of parents and advocacy groups, began its court case calling for the state to revamp its education funding formula. The CFE said Tuesday it plans to bring the case to the state Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, as quickly as possible.

In 2001 State Supreme Court Judge Leland DeGrasse ruled that the state underfunded its five largest school districts, including New York City, and ordered the state Legislature to reform the formula by Sept. 15, 2001.

In its 69-page decision the five-judge panel said the DeGrasse ruling, which Gov. George Pataki had immediately appealed, “applied an improper standard” and “went too far in stating that a sound basic education must prepare students for employment somewhere between low-level service jobs and the most lucrative careers.”

Reflecting the surprise and anger expressed by many Queens representatives Tuesday, Borough President Helen Marshall called the appellate division’s ruling “a dark day for New York City schoolchil­dren.”

“This is devastating. It’s a devastating day for the children of Queens,” said the former teacher. “What kind of message are we sending New York City public school children? We will fight this decision in the courts with all of our strength.”

Queens Board of Education Representative Terri Thomson agreed.

“I’m very disappointed,” she said. “This is a pretty black day.”

Pataki said Tuesday he had increased city public school funding by 60 percent since taking office.

A Pataki spokesman said in a statement “this lawsuit started in 1993 ... because of the Cuomo administra­tion’s complete failure to invest in New York City schools or fight for real reforms.”

Throughout most of the state, school districts raise most of their revenue through property taxes. In New York’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.

DeGrasse’s complicated, 191-page ruling said the education city students now get is “so deficient it falls beneath” the state constitutional standard of providing a “sound basic education.”

Michael Rebell, executive director for the CFE, called the Appellate Division reversal “shocking” and said “they do a lot of nitpicking here.”

The Appellate Division’s decision made several references to what it described as the city Board of Ed’s mismanagement of the educational system and said the CFE “failed to prove that deficiencies in the city’s school system are caused by the state’s funding system.”

“A statement that the current system is inadequate and that more money is better is nothing more than an invitation for limitless litigation,” the judges wrote.

Commenting on the school overcrowding that has left some schools without science labs, music rooms or gymnasiums, the decision said “there was no proof that these conditions are so pervasive as to constitute a system-wide failure, much less one that was caused by the school financing system.”

Former Borough President Claire Shulman, who honored DeGrasse after his ruling on the CFE case, called the Appellate Division’s reversal “outrageous.”

“It doesn’t seem quite fair that we should be underfunded by the state when we support the state,” said Shulman. “To take it out of the hides of the children of New York I think is cruel.”

State Sen. Frank Padavan (R–Bellerose) labeled Tuesday’s decision as “unexpected,” while fellow state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) voiced anger.

“The child goes to school only once. You can delay a garbage pickup for a day, but you can’t delay a child’s education. It’s a dreadful decision,” she said.

City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) said of the judges: “I just don’t know what they were thinking.

“I don’t understand how anyone with common sense could overturn that verdict,” he said.

City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), the only Queens member of the Council’s Education Committee, called it “a travesty,” while City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) said “it’s disappointing that the governor appealed in the first place.”

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

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