YONKERS During the past two years, as the Yonkers school board eliminated nearly 500 jobs, including 8 percent of its teaching staff, schools officials assured restive parents that all was well test scores were rising, and the reduced staff was meeting the needs of 27,000 students in the state's fourth-largest district.
On Wednesday, the school board presented a different view, declaring in a lawsuit challenging New York's school-aid distribution system, that all, in fact, was not well. Classes are overcrowded, and students "are failing standardized tests at alarming rates."
In fact, the board's suit now says, the schools were doing such a poor job that Yonkers eighth-graders were consistently failing at higher rates than New York City students.
Outside PEARLS Hawthorne School yesterday, parents who had criticized the budget cuts questioned the sudden change in tone by Yonkers policymakers, who set aside $700,000 in this year's budget to pay the lawyers who filed the lawsuit.
"They've been saying all along that we don't need to put in extra money because everything was going great," said parent Sophia Wu as she picked up her children, Timothy and William. "For the longest time, I'd been told my sons were getting a decent education. Now, that's all changed."
The lawsuit, which was filed by the school board, the nonprofit Citizens for Yonkers, and four individual trustees, contends that Yonkers students for several years have not received a "sound, basic education," the minimum required by the state Constitution.
The state's highest court has ruled such an education consists of basic literacy, math and verbal skills necessary to eventually prepare students for jobs and to become civic participants, capable of voting and serving on a jury.
The suit details how Yonkers has received far less per-pupil funding than Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester.
During deliberations over the district's $400 million budget, which was first presented on March 21, trustees have yet to voice any concerns about how the proposed spending plan would impact students, or might be changed, for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The board's Audit, Budget, and Finance Committee held an 11-minute meeting on March 21 when schools Superintendent Angelo Petrone presented a one-page overview of his $400 million plan. It has not met since, and no meetings are scheduled. Budget Committee Chairman Thomas Weibrecht, who also heads Citizens for Yonkers and is a plaintiff in the case, said he saw no reason for further talks on the budget.
"What else is there to discuss?" he said. "You have a status quo budget, and $30 million in non-discretionary increase. If we had more money, we could put money into those areas that need it. But cash is finite. When we get our fair share, we will put it into areas that don't meet the constitutional requirement."
Other mothers discussing the case outside PEARLS were Gretchen Mullins Kim, who was picking up her first-grader, and Tracy Ronnermann, on her way to lead an after-school Girl Scout meeting with her sixth-grade daughter, Amy, who she said hasn't had music instruction available in three years.
Ronnermann, a frequent critic at school board meetings, said the trustees were sending a mixed message to the community.
"They've been saying everything is wonderful, and now it's beyond horrible," she said. "I guess the parents who spoke out were right all the time."
Trustee John Pagliaroli, who is one of the plaintiffs, declined to discuss the state of the Yonkers education system as detailed in the lawsuit filed on Wednesday. He said he was glad that the Yonkers City Council had added $1.5 million to the proposed school budget, enough to add teachers.
"All I'm saying is that Yonkers isn't getting its fair share, and we needed to file this in order to get it," Pagliaroli said, explaining why he joined the lawsuit.