New York State United Teachers leaders are crisscrossing the state this month as part of a seven-week bus tour, witnessing the impact of funding shortages in public schools from Long Island to the North Country. Since Jan. 15, they have been drawing attending to a plethora of woes: teacher and support staff layoffs in Rochester, counselor shortages in White Plains and ballooning class sizes in Schenevus. In other locations, school supplies are running out, roofs are leaking, and art and music programs are disappearing.
These are urgent deficits, and NYSUT is pressing legislators to increase state aid to address them. In fact, New York owes more than $3.4 billion in Foundation Aid, the state’s school funding mechanism, to school districts that have had to make up the shortfall or go without.
“Our children do not get a do-over,” says NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “We hear every year that there is a budget gap, but the state can’t close it on the backs of Central New York’s middle-class families and students through more underfunding of our education system. Fully funding our students’ futures can’t wait any longer.”
“If communities are going to thrive, we need to have a lifeline from the state and federal governments,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten, who joined the tour Feb. 14 in Syracuse. “It’s not that anybody wants a handout. But people deserve a hand up. And a thriving community starts with public education.”
NYSUT is calling for a $2.1 billion increase in state aid this year, and for a new tax on billionaires and ultramillionaires to support it. A recent poll shows that an overwhelming majority of New York voters (92 percent) agree with NYSUT, and want to levy new taxes on the ultrawealthy. Many state legislators are on board, too, and they’ve been appearing at Fund Our Future events to signal support.
The need for change is evident at every stop on the bus tour, part of NYSUT’s and AFT’s Fund Our Future campaigns. After the campaign kickoff in Albany, the state capital, educators at the first stop, Mohonasen, talked about losing music programs, library staff, teachers and custodians. “In the last two years, 10 percent of my unit has been reduced,” says school secretary Alma Dicocco, president of the Mohonasen Support Staff. “We’ve lost a business office position, a clerical position and custodians.”
Niagara Falls elementary schools haven’t had librarians for 20 years. Kenmore-Tonawanda had to cut sixth-grade exploratory language classes, and teachers are conducting reading services out of coatrooms. White Plains, where school psychologists are charged with helping students deal with suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety and episodes of cutting, has just two social workers for more than 600 students. In Niagara Falls, there’s one social worker for every 2,000 students and eight guidance counselors districtwide.
In Rochester, more than 100 teachers and nearly 70 support staff and administrators were laid off in the middle of the year, a devastating event that caused disruption for thousands of students. The state owes Rochester $86 million in Foundation Aid.
Young students in Rochester have been in tears because their teachers are gone; others, whose special education services are legally mandated, have lost their teacher support staff and are not getting the services they need. “You ask us to do more with less; that’s kind of what we do,” says one teacher, “but we’re struggling.” Meanwhile, the superintendent says more layoffs are likely without more state funding.
In Brighton, the problem is slightly different: Teachers are retiring, and there’s no money to fill the vacancies they leave behind. Diversifying the teaching staff has been nearly impossible with little funding available to pay new educators. Music, art and extracurricular activities have been threatened, too. “Creating art allows children to find their voice,” says art teacher Lia Jordan. “We can’t take that away.”
At a stop in Riverhead, educators said they worry about overcrowding. “When I started teaching, I had 24 kids in my classroom,” says fifth-grade teacher Cory Swenk. “Now, I have 33. The personal attention is not there. ... I don’t wear a cape.”
Trying to be a superhero resonates with educators in New York City, where understaffing presents major challenges. “We all wear multiple hats, and we have been since the dinosaur age,” says Vanessa Dierking, chapter leader at the United Federation of Teachers. “But it feels like now we’re wearing multiple gloves and multiple scarves, too. Full funding would allow full staffing.”
NYSUT’s Fund Our Future bus tour will continue through March 6. “We’re making sure that everyone knows what the issue is: billions of dollars owed to public schools,” said Pallotta at a legislative breakfast in Syracuse Feb. 14. “There are billions of dollars in New York state to fund that. They just have to find the will, and make the way, to pass some new legislation to tax the billionaires and multimillionaires.”
[Virginia Myers and NYSUT staff]