Rochester educators brace for layoffs, students walk out in protest

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Friday, Dec. 6, was a dark day in Rochester, N.Y., public schools: More than 200 teachers and school staff got layoff notices in the middle of the school year despite passionate arguments to “cut from the top” and leave classroom personnel alone—at least until the end of the school year.

walkout students and striking teachers

Students were so upset that hundreds walked out of school Monday to protest. “Cut your salary, not our teachers,” their picket signs read, targeting district administrators, and “My biggest concern should be grades, not losing my teachers.”

“This is an awful thing to do at Christmastime to the kids, to the families, to the staff of the district," Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski told news website New York Upstate. "It is reckless. There’s a better way to do this, and it’s not too late to reconsider.”

The cuts, driven by a $30 million school district budget deficit, mean possible job loss for approximately 218 district employees, including 152 teachers. Other layoffs include paraprofessionals, who are represented by the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals and Board of Education Non-teaching Employees (BENTE). The school board will vote on the layoff proposal Dec. 19.

RTA and RAP members are telling the district it must exhaust all avenues to additional state funding before cutting teachers and support staff and disrupting the relationships they’ve built with their students. The unions are also urging administrators to keep the cuts as far from the classroom as possible, suggesting cuts to the central school district office instead.

“You are proposing that we disrupt the learning for our students in the middle of their school year, disrupt relationships between them and their teachers, disrupt relationships among the students themselves,” Urbanski told the school board at a hearing Dec. 5, referring to a plan to consolidate classrooms to accommodate the loss of teachers. He said the state Legislature, which reconvenes in January, could resolve the budget deficit, and the school board should wait until the end of the school year to enact “brutal layoffs and brutal reduction in services.”

Education advocates and union members are writing letters to the Board of Education and plan a demonstration—which AFT President Randi Weingarten is expected to attend—before the Dec. 19 board meeting, when the board takes its final vote on the matter. Students, parents, educators and community members, along with allies across the country, wore red on Dec. 9, repeating the “Red for Ed” demonstration of solidarity that has become so common in this era of teacher uprisings. Meanwhile, the Syracuse school district is working with the union to recruit teachers to its system—an hour and a half away. Such a move is just one of the distressing options teachers whose jobs are on the chopping block must consider to move forward with their lives. Emotional conversations and teary meetings among teachers and paras center around next steps: Where will these educators work? Will they leave the profession altogether?

Most educators are more worried about their students, who rely on stable relationships with their teachers and paras to thrive. “There are so many things the kids are dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” says Elizabeth Rios-Bakari, a member of RAP who is featured in a New York State United Teachers video. “Without support in their classroom, it’ll be devastating for them.”

“The district’s rushed and arbitrary timeline for immediate layoffs, increased class sizes and devastating reductions of services to our students is both unnecessary and oblivious to the welfare of our students,” says Urbanski. “It confuses doing it right with doing it right away. We will continue to try to persuade the board to join us in first pursuing additional state funding instead.”

[Virginia Myers]