March 2013
February 25, 2013

NYSUT takes state to court over tax cap law

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
nysutunited_1303_lawsuit

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi is
interviewed by the Capitol press
corps after the union filed a lawsuit
that challenges the constitutionality
of the state's tax cap law.
Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

The property tax cap New York lawmakers put in place two years ago impairs the right of every public school student to a quality education, a lawsuit filed by NYSUT charges.

The lawsuit also affirms that the tax cap unconstitutionally limits local school districts' control over the programs they can offer and undermines basic democracy.

"We believe very strongly in the principle that all students, no matter where they live or go to school, should have the opportunity to receive a quality public education," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "In challenging the constitutionality of the tax cap, we are fighting for that principle as well as the democratic principles of 'one person, one vote' and the right of citizens, through local control of their schools, to determine for themselves what resources they wish to commit to their own community's schools."

The tax cap, which went into effect in 2012, applies to all school districts and local municipalities and districts (sewer, water, fire and library), except for those in New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Yonkers.

It restricts how school districts and local municipalities can increase their tax levies based on a complex formula, and requires a supermajority — 60 percent of voters in school districts and 60 percent of the governing body for all others — to exceed the tax levy limit.

NYSUT's lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court in Albany in late February, charges that New York state "cannot legally justify an education funding system that permits gross disparities in district funding and educational opportunities for school children, and then impose an arbitrary, across-the-board percentage cap on local spending.

"While, on its face, the tax cap gives the appearance of equality, in effect the tax cap locks in existing inequalities, and has a disproportionate, negative impact on the ability of the lower wealth districts and their voters to provide educational opportunity to school children," the suit says.

As the lawsuit notes, the Court of Appeals has already ruled that allowing taxpayers substantial local control is the only "rational basis" for allowing unequal education spending.

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

An analysis by NYSUT of school budget votes last year shows that voters in districts with more wealth overrode the cap when given that option, while voters in low-wealth districts did not, indicating the law puts an unfair burden on districts that have fewer resources.

Eight NYSUT members, all parents of students in districts where school budgets would have passed if not for the tax cap language that allows a negative vote to weigh more than a positive one, have joined NYSUT's suit.

One, Hilary Strong, lives in the Elmira City School District and is president of the Spencer-Van Etten Teachers Association. She voted "yes" on Elmira's budget because she wanted her son, Kevin, "to have the same academic and extra curricular opportunities that students have had in the past, and that many wealthier districts can still afford to offer."

When that budget "failed" with a 55 percent yes vote, the district cut 126 positions, including librarians and teachers for computers, music and Advanced Placement; and reduced athletics and non-mandated programs.

"What does a senior list as extracurricular activities when there are none to join?"

Strong asked. "Colleges look to see the rigor of a student's transcript. If Elmira can't offer AP classes, then how will my son have a chance at being accepted into a competitive university?"

For Mike Lillis, president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers and a New Paltz resident for 18 years, the lawsuit is about preserving public education for his daughter, who will be in kindergarten this fall. Lillis is still angry that New Paltz's budget failed last May, with a 59 percent "yes" vote.

"I find it offensive that on this, the most democratic tax that is levied, and in fact the only tax that voters actually get to have direct say on, the law is skewed so that those who vote 'no' count 50 percent more than those who vote 'yes,'" he said.

The lawsuit also charges that the tax cap:

  • discourages districts from exceeding the tax cap and violates voting as free expression under the state constitution and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; and
  • violates equal protection clauses of both the state and U.S. constitutions by treating school budget and non-school budget voters and education and non-education voting proposals differently. (The tax cap allows town representatives to exceed the tax cap with a supermajority vote of their governing boards. Since most towns, villages and cities are comprised of a mayor, and four council members or trustees, 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.)

The state has 20 days to respond to the suit.

The lawsuit, which highlights the need for changes to the law, is part of NYSUT's dual strategy to deal with the most significant problems created by the tax cap. NYSUT members will continue to call on lawmakers to reform the tax cap through lobbying efforts, such as the Committee of 100 on March 5; through the Member Action Center at mac.nysut.org; and visits to lawmakers' district offices.

Carl Korn contributed to this story.