N.Y. APPEALS COURT UPHOLDS PLAINTIFFS’ CLAIMS OF INSUFFICIENT SCHOOL FUNDING IN LONG-PENDING “SMALL-CITIES” CASE
Last month, in a striking decision, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division, Third Department, ruled unanimously that the plaintiffs in each of eight small-city New York school districts (Jamestown, Kingston, Mount Vernon, Newburgh, Niagara Falls, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie and Utica) had proved they were being denied the opportunity for a sound basic education guaranteed by Article XI of the New York State Constitution.
This decision in Maisto v. State of New York again criticized the trial court judge, Albany County Supreme Court Judge Kimberley O’Connor, for misreading the applicable legal requirements.
This was the third time the case, which had originally been filed in 2009, had been appealed to the Appellate Division. Rather than sending it back to the trial court once again, the appeals court decided this time to undertake a rare “de novo” review and study the voluminous 5,000-page trial transcripts and 30 boxes of exhibits themselves and issue a final ruling, without any further input from the trial judge.
In its 52-page decision, the appeals court emphasized the needs of the “at-risk” student population in these districts. The plaintiffs had presented extensive evidence that many of the districts lacked adequate academic intervention services (AIS) for students struggling academically, language services for students learning English, as well as social workers and guidance counselors. Emphasizing the importance of these resources, the Court wrote:
Although we agree with Supreme Court that the educational system cannot be charged with resolving all of society’s problems, we believe that the services and programming in question are foundational, and the level provided was insufficient to meet student need.
In addition, the Court criticized Justice O’Connor for her wholesale rejection of the testimony of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses and for failing to accept one of the experts’ findings regarding the importance of small class sizes, especially considering the Court of Appeals’ precedent on this point in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State case.
The Court also expounded upon, and applied to this case, legal principles established by the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, in its three major decisions issued more than 15 years ago in the CFE litigation:
The Education Article requires defendant to offer “all children” the opportunity for a sound basic education … including those who “present with socioeconomic deficits” (Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, 100 NY 2d at 915). … As explained by multiple qualified witnesses, providing at-risk students with a meaningful high school education … necessarily requires two general categories of resources: (1) a student and family support team comprised of adequate numbers of social workers, guidance counselors and parent and community liaisons; and (2) early, intensive academic interventions and extended learning opportunities. As noted by the Court of Appeals in CFE II, “all children can learn given appropriate instructional, social, and health services” …. [A]dequate AIS programming, language services and support personnel are relevant factors to consider when assessing the inputs portion of such a claim.
The panel of judges also noted, “Proof that a school district or its board of education has mismanaged its district is not defense to an otherwise established Education Article claim, as school districts are agents of [the State] (see [CFE II] at 922).”
After reviewing all the facts concerning services provided to students in each of the eight small-city school districts, the court held that the State had violated the constitutional rights of students in every one of these districts. The Appellate Division did not determine a remedy for these extensive constitutional violations; instead, it remitted the case to the trial court for further proceedings to determine an appropriate remedy.
The State has not yet indicated whether it will appeal this decision to the Court of Appeals. Nor is it clear what impact the state legislature’s recent commitment to fully fund foundation aid over the next few years will have on the remedy.
The Center for Educational Equity filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in this case.