Small cities school funding case sent back to lower court for factual findings

by Jay Worona

On Board Online • November 20, 2017

By Jay Worona
Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel

It has been nine years since the plaintiffs in the small cities school funding case commenced court proceedings seeking to ensure that their school districts receive sufficient state funding to provide their children the opportunity to receive a sound basic education as guaranteed in the state Constitution. According to the plaintiffs, the state has violated the state Constitution by failing to appropriate sufficient levels of funding to enable their districts to provide a sound basic education.

The most recent development in Maisto v. State of New York gave new hope to the school districts involved. A state appellate court sent the case back to a lower court which had dismissed the action and failed to make specific findings of fact essential to a final disposition of the litigation.

The lower court's decision, if left intact, would have precluded the plaintiffs in Maisto from continuing their legal action.

In a different case called Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), the state's highest court found that answering the question of whether children are receiving a sound basic education involves measures of both inputs ("teaching, facilities and instrumentalities of learning") and outputs ("test results and graduation and dropout rates"). Where inputs and outputs are both deficient, a causal link between the two can be established "by showing that increased funding would provide better teachers, facilities and instrumentalities of learning that improve student performance," the Court of Appeals said in CFE.

In its decision in Maisto, the lower court acknowledged that the plaintiffs had submitted sufficient evidence to establish a constitutional violation. Although it held a trial and heard from witnesses, it made no actual findings of fact regarding the factors of a constitutional violation. Instead, the lower court found the plaintiffs had failed to prove the state "did not meet its constitutional obligation." It concluded that the state's level of funding was "constitutionally adequate because it exceeded the amount proposed by then governor Pataki in 2006" in response to the CFE rulings. Consistent with this conclusion, the lower court determined that consideration of the CFE factors is "not required in 'the post-CFE environment."

On appeal, the Appellate Division, Third Department, disagreed. It stated that the lower court "erred by proceeding directly to the 'remedy' stage ... without first applying the [CFE] framework." Evidence of inputs, outputs and causation must be considered to answer the question of whether the state Constitution has been violated, the court said. Evidence of inputs, outputs and causation must be considered to answer the question of whether the state Constitution has been violated, the court said.

According to the Third Department, it was proper to send back the case to the lower court instead of making its own findings of fact and entering judgment. A "determination of the adequacy of the inputs and causation turns largely on resolution of sharply competing expert opinion testimony, which, in turn, implicates the credibility of the . witnesses . and the weight to be afforded to [their] testimony [which] require consideration in the first instance by the trial court."

The absence of actual findings of fact in the record did not allow the Third Department to make inferences regarding the lower court's evaluation of the credibility of witnesses. The lower court is now instructed to conduct further proceedings consistent with the Third Department's decision.

NYSSBA submitted a friend-of-the- court brief in support of the Maisto plaintiffs urging the court to permit the case to remain alive instead of being dismissed. NYSSBA has consistently maintained that children are entitled to enjoy and receive the benefits of their constitutionally protected rights.

NYSSBA is also actively involved in another school funding lawsuit entitled New Yorkers for Student Educational Right (NYSER) v. The State of New York. Attorneys for the state were unsuccessful in attempts to secure a court ruling to dismiss that lawsuit, in which education groups, school districts and parents from across the state maintain that the state ultimately bears the constitutional obligation to ensure that all of its students are afforded adequate funds to ensure that they receive a sound basic education.

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