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Court says schools in city deserve more state money

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State lawmakers and school officials from Queens hailed a 4-1 decision by the New York State Court of Appeals last Thursday that said schools in the borough and the rest of the city were not getting enough money to educate their students.

Ending a 10-year battle against the state brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of parents, attorneys and city council members, Chief Judge Judith Kaye said New York state violated its own constitution by considering an eighth-grade education the fulfillment of its obligation for a sound, basic education in New York City.

The court found that city students were being shortchanged by a state formula that gave them too small an amount of money given the city’s large contribution to the state’s tax pool.

The ruling now requires state lawmakers to formulate a more equitable method for distributing education funds that will raise borough and city students from near the bottom in terms of the money per student they receive from the state.

“Even with our constant efforts and some recent successes in trying to increase funding levels for city schools, it’s obvious that our students haven’t always gotten a fair share of state funding,” state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) said. “Certainly now, no one can pretend that things are equitable when it comes to school funding in New York state.”

Queens has the most overcrowded schools in the city.

The ruling now means a high school education should be guaranteed to all New York state’s students to satisfy the state constitution. The Court of Appeals struck down Gov. George Pataki’s assertion that an eighth-grade level education was enough to satisfy state constitutional requirements.

State Assemblyman Steve Sanders (D-Manhattan) said the decision cannot be appealed.

State lawmakers now have until July 2004 to come up with a new formula for distributing the pool of state education funds fairly to the city.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit brought the suit against the state because it claimed a faulty formula failed to give New York and four other cities across the state adequate education funds. The plaintiffs claimed the lack of money in the face of increasing federal, state and city standards contributed to the impoverished state of Queens and city schools.

The ruling means the state’s five largest school districts, New York, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Yonkers, are not being given their fair share of the state’s education funds.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, a former school teacher and a party to the lawsuit, applauded the decision.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for our city’s schoolchil­dren,” she said. “Justice lives!”

Pataki, who had challenged the suit and has been a consistent opponent of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said he would support the Court of Appeal’s decision after it was handed down last week.

The governor appealed a State Supreme Court decision in 2001 that ordered the state to restructure the education funding formulas and won a reversal in the case last June, which led up to last week’s Court of Appeals ruling.

Community School Board 29 President Nathaniel Washington said he hopes the court’s decision translates into more money to repair buildings, buy more books and provide students with basic school supplies.

“All we want is to be brought up to par,” he said. “I just hope this does not start a fight upstate.”

Washington, whose district covers the communities of Queens Village, Cambria Heights, Springfield Gardens, Laurelton, Rosedale, Fresh Meadows and St. Albans, said state lawmakers will be challenged to come up with a new formula that better serves borough schools.

State Assemblywoman Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) said one consequence of the decision might mean a decrease in state learning standards that could be scaled back to justify less than adequate spending by the Legislature.

“Lower standards require less money,” she said. “Our children can — and will — learn if given the proper educational supports.”

Speculation on the consequences of the ruling did not prevent some legislators, however, from celebrating.

State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Whitestone), a member of the senate’s Higher Education Committee and who celebrated her birthday the day the court ruled, said the ruling was long overdue and will force the state Legislature to overhaul how it finances education in Queens.

“We need a rational and fair system of education funding based upon a formula that is statewide in scope and is based upon need,” she said. “It doesn’t take a genius to know what is needed: licensed teachers, reductions in class size, and sufficient equipment in a conducive learning environment.”

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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