ALBANY, N.Y. Feb. 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 CAP 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 homeowner's 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 underscored that state aid to public schools is virtually flat compared to 2007-08 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 Methodists 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.
Summary of Causes of Action
First Cause: The state Constitution guarantees all schoolchildren the right to a sound, basic education – the foundation of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case. It also guarantees that school boards and voters can provide enhanced educational opportunities beyond the minimum and can address inequality through local control of spending. The tax cap unconstitutionally deprives students of that right by limiting the ability of school districts and taxpayers to address funding inequities. With its arbitrary tax cap, the state has locked in existing funding disparities between school districts by limiting the ability of districts and their taxpayers to address these inequities by exercising "substantial local control."
Second Cause: Funding disparities between school districts exist because of differences in assessed property value from district to district. The Court of Appeals has recognized the state Constitution guarantees the ability of voters to set the levels of taxation properly to meet the needs of their school districts – the concept of "substantial local control." The Court of Appeals has held that local control is the "only rational basis" underpinning New York's inequitable school finance system. The tax cap unconstitutionally strips away the ability of school districts and their taxpayers to exercise local control and address funding deficiencies.
Third Cause: The right of school districts and voters to provide educational opportunity to school children is a liberty interest protected by the New York and U.S. constitutions. The tax cap infringes upon this liberty interest, and therefore denies equal protection of the law, by allowing voters in districts with greater taxable wealth to raise more revenue than those in low wealth districts.
Fourth Cause: The tax cap violates the equal protection clauses of the state and U.S. constitutions by treating school districts and school district voters unequally from local government voters and non-education funding proposals. The suit notes most towns, villages and cities are comprised of a supervisor or mayor, and four council members or trustees. Thus, the overwhelming majority of non-education 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 mere simple majority. Yet, adopting a school budget exceeding the tax cap requires a 60 percent supermajority of all voters.
Fifth Cause: The tax cap's requirement of a 60 percent supermajority is undemocratic and violates the one-man, one-vote protection of both the state and federal constitutions. Under the tax cap, a voter who casts a ballot in favor of exceeding the tax cap has only two-thirds the voting power of a voter who votes against the proposal.
Sixth Cause: The tax cap violates voters' right to equal protection under the law by diminishing their voting power based on their desire to increase education funding. The 60 percent supermajority requirement classifies and treats unequally voters who support – and would benefit from – increased education funding. The votes of those who favor exceeding the tax cap are given two-thirds the weight of those who oppose exceeding the cap, violating equal protection under the law.
Seventh Cause: Voting is free expression protected by the state constitution and First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. When a school district proposes a cap-exceeding budget, the tax cap requires the district to include on the ballot a notice that is not neutral and is meant to discourage voters from approving a proposal to exceed the cap. In addition, the tax cap imposes adverse funding consequences where super majorities are not achieved in two votes. This "poison pill" has a chilling effect on the free expression and voting rights of taxpayers who wish to increase school funding above the tax cap.