Schools plan civil rights action
Complaint challenges state aid distribution
SCHENECTADY The Schenectady and Middletown school districts will file a civil rights complaint against the state this summer, the superintendents decided Wednesday.
They plan to complain that school districts with large minority populations receive far less state aid than predominantly white districts.
Also, Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring has sent emails to 42 other districts that have mostly non-white students, pointing out his research into flaws in the state aid formula and asking them to sign on to the complaint. He also wants parents to sign on as direct representatives of the students who are being hurt by the lack of funding.
He called a public meeting with the other superintendents Wednesday to talk about how they would write their complaint. Despite some concerns from the other school leaders, he invited the media, saying they must make this fight public.
“I think the more people find out about this, the more it becomes known, the more people become outraged by it,” he said.
According to his research, 11 districts with mostly minority students are receiving at least the median aid in the state, while 44 minority districts receive less than the median aid — including Schenectady and Middletown.
Of the entire state, only 8 percent of the school districts are considered minority districts. In a standard statistical spread, that should mean 8 percent of those districts would receive the top level of aid and 8 percent would receive the lowest level of aid. Instead, 30 percent of the minority districts receive the lowest level of aid.
“It’s three times as likely for a minority-as-majority district to be underfunded,” Spring said.
He doesn’t think the state has done that on purpose, but, he said, there are so few minority districts that they can’t develop enough political clout to face off on an equal basis against the many white districts. That’s why the federal Office for Civil Rights was created, he said.
The office is part of the federal Education Department. Its role is to enforce federal civil rights laws.
Spring said he spoke with officials from the Office for Civil Rights, and they told him they were “very interested” in investigating his complaint. The Schenectady school board also wants to make the complaint.
State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said the department would not comment on the complaint because it could become a legal matter.
The process would not involve a court case, however. The office would investigate and issue a decision. It could take months or years.
But Spring said that might be the only way to force the state to obey a court order on the issue. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s court case ended with an order detailing how much the state had to pay each district, each year, to help them provide a “sound basic education” to all students.
But the state never paid, leaving districts at previously inequitable aid amounts. Schenectady is now receiving 54 percent of what the order said it needed, while other nearby districts — all of which are white — are getting 62 percent or more of their court-ordered aid.
Spring said he thinks the state isn’t going to pay.
“They don’t really have an interest in doing that,” he said. “The federal government has the power to step in and say, ‘This is not OK.’ ”
Middletown City School District Superintendent Ken Eastwood enthusiastically joined Spring in the complaint. He has already called in his city’s chapter of the NAACP, and his school board plans to meet with district attorneys to write the complaint this summer.
He said Spring’s research is damning — particularly the fact that 80 percent of minority districts are getting less than the median amount of state aid.
“That says it all,” Eastwood said. “It’s absolutely unfair, based on color. That’s an established fact. No one wants to talk about it.”
But, he said, he would talk about it.
“I’m going to be very vocal,” he promised. “These are my kids. My kids right now are not being treated fairly.”
Eastwood added that his district, and many other minority districts, need the aid more because their students are also poor. Those children tend to start school with fewer skills than middle-class students and tend to fall farther back each summer, while well-off children are in enrichment programs that get them to practice their reading and math skills.
“If you want to compare us to a wealthier district, we have a bigger mountain to climb, so give us more resources,” he said.
But other district leaders said they were afraid if they joined the complaint, they might end up getting less funding from the state. Spring said several superintendents told him they wouldn’t join for that reason.
Superintendent Charles Leunig of the Copiague Union Free School District on Long Island came to Spring’s meeting, but indicated he probably wouldn’t sign the complaint.
“I don’t know what kind of reaction we’d get,” he said. “I have concerns as to what reaction, and/or treatment, we might receive as a result of being part of this action.”
Albany City School District Superintendent Marguerite Wyngaard said she was eager to join the effort, although she had not yet broached the issue with her school board. She said she could not commit to the complaint until she gets approval from her school board.
“But obviously I wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t important,” she said.
As a black woman, she said, she should play a key role in the effort. Spring was invited to the state Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus meeting, but then had the invitation rescinded. Wyngaard said she probably would not have been snubbed.