BOSTON — In Fall River, where four of Denise Daponte Mussotte's children attend public school, there are times when there aren't enough aides working to allow teachers to take bathroom breaks.
Mayra Balderas said her 10-year-old son with special needs has been in classes in Chelsea with 33 students, and teachers there are overwhelmed.
Orange School Committee member and parent Danielle Andersen said her committee had its hardest meeting of the year this week: its annual budget meeting, where members had to decide if they will lay off four teachers or cut all art, gym, music and technology classes. If a Proposition 2 1/2 override does not pass -- and Andersen said it has a "great chance" of failing -- both options will be on the table.
Daponte Mussotte, Balderas and Andersen are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Thursday with the Supreme Judicial Court, alleging chronic underfunding has created unconstitutional disparities in public education.
"What do our children have to look forward to? What are they reaching out to?" Andersen said at a press conference. "There's no places to go and see wonderful things. When I was little, our school took us here to Boston and we walked the Freedom Trail and we learned about who we were. How do you do that if you can't see it, touch it and learn it for real? It's just words, and when you're hungry, you're not hearing those words."
The lawsuit -- brought by parents and students from Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Haverhill, Lowell, Orange and Springfield, along with the New England Area Conference of the NAACP and the Chelsea Collaborative -- comes as lawmakers are weighing potential paths forward to overhaul the state's school funding formula.
It names as defendants Education Secretary James Peyser, Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Chair Katherine Craven, and Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan.
Peyser, who attended an early college event with Baker and Riley in Charlestown Thursday morning, said then that he had not had a chance to read the complaint but he hoped "that over the course of the next few months, we'll actually have a bill that the governor can sign that will address the concerns of the complainants."
"The governor and the administration absolutely share the concerns raised by the complainants, which is that we need to be spending more on K-12 education and need to be allocating those resources to the communities that need it the most," Peyser told reporters.
Baker declined to comment on the lawsuit and said he was also looking forward to getting a bill passed.
Asked if he thought the lawsuit would put additional pressure on lawmakers to push a bill over the finish line, Baker said, "I don't think anybody needs pressure to get a bill done."
House and Senate talks on a major education funding bill collapsed last July and lawmakers this year are trying to find common ground on a bill, and taking legislation filed by Baker into consideration.
"Part of the reason we filed a bill with our budget when we filed it back in January was to kick-start this conversation, and the Legislature had a hearing really early on this, which is unusual, and I think every indication is people would really like to get this resolved in this legislative session, which we think is a good thing," he said.
Speakers at the press conference voiced frustration with lawmakers and the administration, and said that passage of funding reform legislation would not guarantee an end to the lawsuit.
"We are not asking for something. We have certain demands which are reflective of what the constitution requires of the commonwealth," said Juan Cofield, president of the NAACP's New England Area Conference. "Something is not good enough, and we are going to stay in place, this lawsuit will stay in place, if the Legislature and the administration do not come forward with what's required under the constitution."
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the suit is not seeking a specific amount of new funding but rather action to "democratize and modernize" the formula to address students' actual needs.
"We are asking the Supreme Judicial Court to recognize that our state Legislature has not cherished public education as our constitution requires," he said. "Instead, the Legislature has been indifferent, unresponsive and willfully blind to the growing disparities in our communities and across our state."
Espinoza-Madrigal said the lawsuit "is challenging the 21st century version of separate but equal." He said many low-income students of color attend "essentially segregated schools" with fewer teachers, opportunities and resources than their wealthier, predominantly white peers.
The Council for Fair School Finance developed the lawsuit. The council -- which includes Lawyers for Civil Rights, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Citizens for Public Schools, and local and statewide education unions -- was also involved in the McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education case that resulted in the 1993 ruling that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to all students.
Devin Sheehan, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said his association's delegate assembly had authorized support for the legal action. Sheehan, a member of the Holyoke School Committee, pointed out that Baker and other officials had touted a budget surplus at the end of the last fiscal year.
"Well I have bills for charter reimbursement, for the circuit breaker, for regional transportation that have all gone unfunded. We did not have a surplus when we can't pay our debts," he said.
Sens. Patricia Jehlen and Jamie Eldridge were among those in the audience for the plaintiffs' press conference.
Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, summed up her reaction to the lawsuit as, "Thank God."
"I'm very happy," she told the News Service. "I wish it happened a long time ago for this, but I think people kept hoping, so this is a backstop."
Jehlen said she was part of the original early-90s suit, and that legal action takes a long time to resolve.
"It's not just what we do this year," she said. "It's whether we keep it up."