WHAT IS IT
WHO ARE WE
WHY DO WE NEED REFIT
In 1974, 30 high tax/low wealth school districts challenged the constitutionality of the New York State’s financing system in the Levittown vs. Nyquist case. Four years later, in June, 1978, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice L. Kingsly Smith ordered the New York State Legislature to reform the state aid formula so as to provide equity in funding for all needy school districts.
Following Judge Smith’s decision, the high tax/low wealth school districts joined together and formed Reform Educational Financing Inequities Today (REFIT). REFIT’s mission was and still is to use all available means including continued or additional legal action to obtain the equal protection that is guaranteed by the New York State’s Constitution for the students who reside in high tax/low wealth districts.
In 1979, REFIT went to court again in an attempt to block passage of the 1979-80 State budget which once again contained an inequitable state aid formula. State Supreme Court Justice Daniel H. Prior denied the request to enjoin the state from putting into effect a $3.5 billion education aid budget. Justice Prior said, however, “The court is greatly concerned for the school children in plaintiffs’ school district”. He also noted that the Court took “judicial notice with great dismay that two proposed amendments to the local assistance bill on state education, which would have attempted to cure defects in the aid plan were defeated in the Assembly”.
In a message to the Legislature in February, 1982, Governor Hugh Carey stated that “New York State must act now to redress the inequities inherent in its school aid formulas….Today the financial inequalities in education are more pronounced that at any time in the State’s history. The divergence in spending between wealthy and poor district increases annually, with the taxpayer in poorer districts facing intolerable, escalating property taxes. New York must stop the unfairness and inequity in their financing of education. We need to demonstrate to all New Yorkers that our great state clearly stands for equality in educational opportunity.”
In 1982, in spite of the Governor’s charge, a divided Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision in Levittown vs. Nyquist and refused to declare the state aid to education formulas unconstitutional. The majority conceded that there were significant inequalities in the availability of financial support for some local school districts, ranging from minor discrepancies to major deficiencies. The decision, however, left the door open for future litigation should the legislature not correct the unequal distribution of aid.
Since, it’s inception, REFIT has vigorously lobbied the Legislature to reform the state aid formula. From time to time New York State charged various commissions, namely, Rubin, Fleischmann and Salerano to seek a solution to the equity issue. All of these task forces provided useful and well intentioned recommendations for reform. Unfortunately, many of the recommendations which would have benefited REFIT districts and Long Island were never accepted by the Legislature.
In August, 1990, the REFIT Board of Directors unanimously voted to go back into Court in an attempt to correct the continuing and increasing inequities in funding education. The cost of mandates, the Regent’s regulations, the fluctuation in real property values, the lag and inconsistencies in property assessments and the continued “band aid” approach to state aid reform had contributed to the financial concerns of REFIT districts. The gap between the resources available to richer districts and poorer districts had increased drastically since the Levittown Decision. The weakened economy and the intolerable actions of the State Legislature to cut state aid in mid year and apply a deficit reduction clause to the state aid formula motivated twenty one school districts to agree with the Board of Directors, and, the REFIT vs. Cuomo lawsuit was filed.
Even though the REFIT districts drastically reduced expenditure through staff reductions, they had little control over the spiraling costs of insurance, books, utilities, supplies, labor, maintenance repairs and a wide variety of state, local and federal mandates. With reduced State aid, the burden of these mandated costs had a dramatic impact on the taxpayers in REFIT districts. Fueled with these frustrations, REFIT vs. Cuomo moved to the New York State Court of Appeals. Unfortunately, once again the State’s highest Court found that the great disparity in ability to spend did not constitute a violation of the New York State Constitution. While the REFIT case was moving through the courts, however, the Legislature adopted several state aid formulas that would drive significant amounts of aid to the high tax/low wealth REFIT districts. This aid would have enabled REFIT districts to provide considerable tax relief for their overburdened residents. Unfortunately New York State continues to claim it does not have the revenue to fully fund these formulas. Each year REFIT districts sadly note that many, many millions of dollars are lost because of the artificial caps on the formulas.
And so, as all school districts scramble to meet the technological needs of our students, the REFIT districts must continue to overburden their taxpayers so that their students are able to compete with their wealthier neighbors.
To coordinate the continuing efforts with the Legislature, the governor and the State Education Department, REFIT is governed by a dedicated Board of Directors composed of up to a total of twenty-one Board of Education members, Superintendents/or their designee, from member districts/BOCES, and no more than three former REFIT/School Board Members and/or Superintendents who reside in a member district. The President, a 1st Vice President, 2nd Vice President and Secretary/Treasurer are elected from among the Board members. A Chief Operating Officer and Executive Secretary perform the day-to-day operations of REFIT receiving a nominal stipend.
REFIT’s job will not be complete until the State aid formulas are fully funded. Our children must be provided with the education they need to function in the 21st century. We cannot afford to do otherwise.