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Hudson Valley parents sign on to tax cap lawsuit

Teacher Michael Lillis with students at Lakeland High

Teacher Michael Lillis with students at Lakeland High School in Shrub Oak. (Nov. 20, 2012) Photo Credit: Elizabeth Daza

Two Hudson Valley parents are among eight plaintiffs in a lawsuit charging that New York's property tax cap is unconstitutional and unfair to low-income students.

The New York State United Teachers filed the lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Albany on Wednesday, challenging one of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's signature legislative accomplishments. The cap, which took effect in January 2012, limits the amount by which local governments can increase property taxes to 2 percent annually, unless local communities approve an override.

School districts must get voter approval for an override -- and muster 60 percent of the vote to do so -- though town councils can override on their own.

"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," said Richard C. Iannuzzi, the union president.

Cuomo has lauded the cap as a success. Discussing the cap Wednesday, he told reporters at a Bronx news conference that the state is suffering in a tough economy.

"It's a question of balance. We want the best education system on the planet," Cuomo said. "I'm not going to New Yorkers today to ask for tax increase after tax increase."

Some educators and parents have railed against the law, saying that, combined with cuts to state school aid since the recession, the cap has caused significant cuts to education programs, especially in poor school districts.

"The tax cap is strangling us to the point where we're getting severely injured because of our demographics," said Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Middletown Enlarged City School District.

The Hudson Valley parent plaintiffs in the suit filed Wednesday -- Mike Lillis and Kathleen Tobin Flusser -- live in the New Paltz School District, which unsuccessfully tried to override the cap in May 2012.

Lillis is also a physics teacher at Lakeland High School and president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers in Westchester County.

Lillis declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday. But in a November interview with Newsday, Lillis said that requiring a 60 percent majority approval for override of the cap was unfair. He said he was concerned about educational opportunities for his 4-year-old daughter.

"As a parent, you're trying to pursue quality education," Lillis said.

Leaders of the Hudson Valley's small-city school districts, which often serve low-income students, have also criticized the cap as inequitable. Middletown school leaders are mounting an effort to join forces with other districts in a separate tax cap lawsuit against the state, similar to the teachers union suit filed Wednesday.

"We speak for our community and our kids, and that's what has been left out," Eastwood said. "The unfairness of state aid and the tax cap has forgotten about the fact that it's kids that are getting hurt."

Mount Vernon City School District Superintendent Judith Johnson said Wednesday that her district is grappling with a large budget gap that she's still tallying. She said the tax cap has had the unintended consequence of giving Mount Vernon's students less access to technology or art and music programs than students in nearby Bronxville schools.

"I wish the governor had to take some time to talk to people in the field -- superintendents and parents -- to get a better understanding of what the long-range implications were of the tax cap," Johnson said. "While I respect his desire to try to limit the continuing increase in taxes, you don't do it on the backs of children."

Tobin Flusser did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

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