UTICA — Larger class sizes, fewer academic and extracurricular opportunities and seemingly endless layoffs.
School districts statewide have been facing budget woes and their effects for the past few years and will continue to for the foreseeable future.
The main culprit: inequitable state funding.
“We’re not getting our fair share of state aid,” said Utica City School District Superintendent Bruce Karam. “Over the last few years we’ve had to lay off over 250 people — teachers and staff — at the same time we’re growing and we’re contending with a charter school, which is taking millions from us, the federal sequestration cuts and then the state-aid formula, which needs to be adjusted to reflect our situation and our variables.”
In 2011, the school district joined forces with seven other small city school districts and their parents statewide to take on the state and fight for equitable funding.
And after several years in court, the case, now known as Maisto vs. the State of New York, is set for trial in state Supreme Court.
The original November trial date was pushed back because the plaintiff needed more time, said Robert Biggerstaff, the attorney handling the case for the parents, students and districts.
Attorneys will meet with the judge Thursday, Dec. 5, to set a new date, Biggerstaff said. He expects the trial to last at least eight to 10 weeks.
State representatives said they do not comment on pending litigation.
A long battle
This isn’t the first time the state was taken to court over school funding.
A previous case involving the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition of concerned parents, was brought to trial and the ruling later upheld in the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
The ruling stated that the state’s funding system violated New York City students’ right to a “sound basic education” and set a deadline in 2004 for the state to enact a remedy; however, the state missed the deadline, according to the Education Law Center.
The Utica City School District also took the state to court in 2004-05 but later dropped the suit after the governor and the Legislature in 2007 passed statewide funding reform and created the Foundation Aid Formula, which would be phased in over four years.
The nearly 70-page formula takes the cost of educating a student, subtracts the expected local tax contribution and multiplies it by the number of students in the district, including factors such as property wealth, area poverty and scarcity.
The first two years, the state Legislature provided installments totaling $2.3 billion. But the formula never was put fully into effect due to state budget woes and the recession. The state then froze aid in 2009-10 at the 2008-09 amount.
Page 2 of 2 - Aid was cut $2.7 billion in 2010 and 2011 using a formula now named the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
Statewide, the total underfunded aid is more than $7.7 billion, according to the Board of Regents 2012 State Aid Conceptual Proposal.
Try, try again
A Gap Elimination Adjustment reimbursement formula began reducing the amount of aid being subtracted from the district starting in 2011-12.
Foundation Aid also was unfrozen in 2012-13, but the increase was slight — 0.75 percent from the previous year, according to the Statewide School Finance Consortium. The 2013-14 budget included an increase of 0.3 percent.
The current case, originally known as Hussein vs. State, until a plaintiff change, was filed in 2008 asserting that students’ right to a “sound basic education” is being denied because of chronic underfunding.
The Utica City School District was onboard once again in the hopes of derailing from its current course of educational insolvency, should it have to continue to make deep budget cuts each year.
“We’re staying in the suit because we need our fair share of state aid in order to operate the kinds of educational programming necessary for our students,” Karam said.
Under the Foundation Aid Formula, Utica should receive $129,314,864 in aid. Its actual 2012-13 aid was $72,196,416 — a shortfall of about $57 million.
“The students in our district are not receiving what they should be receiving in order to get a sound, basic education in New York state because the funding is inadequate,” said Attorney Donald Gerace, who represents the district. “We are one of the poorest districts in the state, quite honestly.”