YONKERS Unequal funding among school districts is not a cause for legal action, the New York Attorney General has argued in response to a lawsuit from the Yonkers Board of Education.
The state has asked Supreme Court Justice Joan Lefkowitz to dismiss major claims in the Yonkers school board's lawsuit challenging the state's system for parceling out financial aid for education to local districts.
The state Attorney General also has asked Lefkowitz to dismiss as plaintiffs the Yonkers Board of Education and four school board trustees, noting that recent court rulings have prohibited school boards and board members from suing the state on the school financing issue.
"Not only as a board, but as individuals, plaintiffs are without power to challenge the validity" of the equal protection clause of the state and federal constitutions, state lawyers argued, according to a motion filed this month.
The state's motion marked its first salvo in what promises to be a long legal battle over the school finance issue in Yonkers. The case was brought June 1 by the Yonkers school board, four school board members and Citizens for Yonkers, a nonprofit organization chaired by school board Trustee Thomas Weibrecht.
Weibrecht, who is also a plaintiff in the case, said he remained optimistic, noting that the state did not seek to dismiss the school board's argument that the state didn't provide adequate funding to provide a sound basic education for Yonkers school children.
That's the issue that resulted in a state Supreme Court ruling favoring the New York City school system, which has been upheld by the state's highest court.
"The state isn't disputing the sound basic education argument, and that's the only thing that's important," Weibrecht said. "All the other stuff is procedural."
One of the major claims in the school board's lawsuit, and one repeated often by Yonkers political leaders, was that Yonkers fared poorly under the state's school-finance system in comparison to Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester.
State officials have long argued that the upstate cities deserve more because they are much poorer than Yonkers.
But the Yonkers lawsuit called on the state to provide equal funding, citing the federal and state equal protection clauses.
In its legal papers, the state noted that New York's highest court has rejected that argument in several cases, including a 2005 ruling involving the Mount Vernon school district.
"The Court of Appeals has expressly held that disparities between school districts, even if proven, do not give rise to a claim under either the state or federal equal protection clauses or the Education Article of the state Constitution," the state argued.
The court also has ruled on the right of school districts to challenge the state's school finance system, referring to the 1995 case filed by New York City and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity that challenged the school aid formula. In that decision, the court found that neither the school board nor its members could sue because they lacked the legal capacity to do so. The court allowed the Campaign for Fiscal Equity to proceed with its case.
Weibrecht said the school board's involvement in the case may be withdrawn.
"The school board probably will be dropped," he said. "But the school board members are parents, and at least on that basis, we still have standing because all four of these individuals have children in the school district, and they are adversely impacted."
Those trustees are Weibrecht, Trevor Bennett, Lisa Perito and John Pagliaroli.
With the school board a plaintiff, the Board of Education has funded the litigation, which officials have predicted could cost up to $1 million. If the board no longer is a plaintiff, Weibrecht said the district still could pay for the lawsuit by giving money to the nonprofit Citizens for Yonkers to carry on the legal battle.
"It would be just like giving money to any other nonprofit," Weibrecht said. "It's independent and has its own board and bylaws."