NYSUT HEADS TO COURT TO PROTECT PUBLIC SCHOOLS, STUDENTS

ALBANY, N.Y. February 20, 2013 – New York State United Teachers,
seeking to protect public schools and students from an inescapable
cycle of cuts and ensure the state’s poorest and most vulnerable
children are not further harmed by grossly inequitable education
funding, today challenged the state’s property tax cap in court.

“We believe very strongly in the principle that every student, no
matter where they live or go to school, should have the opportunity to
receive a quality public education,” said NYSUT President Richard C.
Iannuzzi. “In challenging the constitutionality of the tax cap, we are
fighting for that principle, just as we are fighting for the
democratic principles of one-person, one-vote and for the right of
citizens, through local control of their schools, to determine for
themselves how much they want to spend on their own community’s
schools.”

NYSUT’s lawsuit filed today in state Supreme Court in Albany charges
the tax cap enacted in June 2011 is unconstitutional because it
arbitrarily caps property tax levy increases, under a complicated
formula, at about 2 percent and, thus, locks in and perpetuates
funding inequities between affluent and low-wealth school districts.
The union said the tax cap unconstitutionally limits the ability of
school districts and their taxpayers to address these inequities by
exercising substantial local control, a concept enshrined in the state
Constitution and which the Court of Appeals has ruled is the only
“rational basis” for allowing unequal distribution of state aid to
schools.

Among seven causes of action, the suit also defends the principle of
one-person, one-vote in arguing that the 60 percent supermajority
required to override the tax cap is unconstitutional. Under the tax
cap, a citizen who casts a ballot in favor of exceeding the tax cap
has only two-thirds the voting power of one who votes against the
proposal.

“We need to have a meaningful conversation in the public arena about
what equity in public education really means,” Iannuzzi said. “We can
no longer accept an education funding system which denies poor
students the same life-enriching educational opportunities provided to
students in more affluent communities, sometimes just a few miles
away. The state’s undemocratic tax cap is exacerbating glaring
inequities in funding while pushing many school districts to the brink
of educational and financial insolvency.”

Iannuzzi added, “There is an unmistakable connection between poverty,
the achievement gap and persistent shortfalls in state education
funding. The state’s ill-conceived property tax only widens those
gaps. NYSUT’s motivation, in going to court and in its continuing
advocacy efforts, is to force difficult conversations in Albany’s
corridors of power about how inequitable funding and this tax cap
dooms generations of students to lesser educational opportunities.”

Iannuzzi stressed the union’s 600,000 members are also taxpayers who,
too, feel the burden of rising local taxes and sympathize with efforts
to control property tax hikes. Yet, he said, the most effective way to
curb local school tax increases is through dramatically increased
state support for public education as well as income-based
circuit-breaker legislation, which would provide tax relief when
property taxes rise beyond a homeowners’ ability to pay.

NYSUT said the state has failed to invest adequately – and equitably
– to address decades of educational neglect, as affirmed by the
Campaign for Fiscal Equity case.

NYSUT’s suit notes that New York State agreed in April 2007 to
address the court’s decision in the CFE case by investing $7 billion
in additional state aid in low-wealth school districts. Instead, the
state has repeatedly reneged on its funding commitments, pushing more
and more of education costs onto the backs of local taxpayers. NYSUT
underscores that state aid to public schools is virtually flat
compared to 2007 and, despite a state increase in the proposed
executive budget, is still projected to be about $300 million less in
2013-14 than in 2008-09, five years earlier.

NYSUT said, for example, the state’s share of education funding,
which once neared 50 percent, dropped to 39.7 percent in 2011-12, the
lowest percentage since 1992-93.

The suit contains seven specific causes of action (see attachment.)
In addition, the suit contests “poison pill” language designed to
discourage school budgets from exceeding the tax cap as a violation of
voting as free expression under the state constitution and First
Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  And, the suit charges school
district budget voters and education funding are treated unequally, in
violation of equal protection clauses of both the state and U.S.
Constitutions, compared to non-school budget voters and non-education
voting proposals.  The suit notes most towns, villages and cities are
comprised of a mayor, and four council members or trustees. Thus, the
overwhelming number of local governments can exceed the tax cap with a
3-2 vote that satisfies the supermajority requirement mathematically,
but in reality is nothing more than a simple majority.

A number of education, civil rights and faith leaders immediately
signaled strong support for the union’s fight for equity, democratic
voting and a strong public education system.

The Rev. Edward Smart, vice president of the Albany African-American
Clergy United for Empowerment and senior pastor of the First Israel
AME Church said, “In an effort to close large deficit gaps and to
provide a premium education to at risk children, school districts in
Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Hudson have been ignored and left
behind. Under New York’s tax cap, school districts can only raise
taxes by a limited percentage. Overriding this cap is almost
impossible for urban centers and for those communities who are most
needy. The African American Clergy Fighting back and the Fellowship of
Black Methodist stand with and support our children.”

“The property tax cap is limiting communities’ ability to fund their
schools, and is increasing inequity in school funding,” said Karen
Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York. “New York
State already has a huge disparity between districts — a difference
of $9,000 per pupil between the top spending districts and the lower
spending districts. In New York State, your zip code determines your
educational opportunities. The property tax cap is adding to that
economic and racial inequity by further limiting the ability of
communities to fill the gap when state aid goes down.”

Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality
Education said, “New York State has imposed a tax cap on local school
districts that locks inequities in place and takes democratic control
away from the local voters. The local school budget cap is
undemocratic because 41 percent of local voters have more power than
59 percent of local voters. It undermines the quality of education
because the state has cut funding levels in school so severely, our
classrooms are on a starvation diet and local voters are unable to
make up the difference due to the cap. This combination of policies is
particularly damaging for students in high need districts, including
districts with high concentrations of students of color.”

David Sciarra, executive director of Education Law Center, on behalf
of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, said, “The tax cap is another part
of the State’s ongoing failure to provide the funding necessary for
all New York children to receive a constitutional, sound basic
education, as determined by the Court of Appeals in the landmark CFE
ruling. The hard 2 percent cap has its harshest impact on high-need
school districts, deepening the cuts in core staff, programs, and
services made over the last several years.  The cap, when coupled with
massive shortfalls in state foundation aid, operates as a ‘double
whammy’ on the budgets of our poorest schools, depriving students of
the opportunity for a meaningful high school education, as guaranteed
by the New York Constitution.”

NYSUT, the state’s largest union, represents more than 600,000
teachers, school-related professionals, academic and professional
faculty in higher education, professionals in education and health
care and retirees. NYSUT is affiliated with the American Federation of
Teachers, National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

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