May 13, 2010

Voters reject budget in East Ramapo

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT News Wire

Before Tuesday's May 11 school budget vote, East Ramapo school district had decided it would cut about 106 positions – about 50 teachers, plus custodians, secretaries, teacher assistants, teacher faculty chairs, and more, as well as close a school. Even with those preemptive moves, the budget was defeated, and many more jobs and programs could be lost.

The vote was scheduled earlier than most May 18 votes due to observance of a religious Jewish holiday, and voters rejected the $198 million proposed budget, which had about a 10 percent tax increase.

East Ramapo Teachers Association president Irene Bielski was still waiting Thursday afternoon to hear when the district will hold a board meeting to decide on either an austerity budget, or hone the budget and put it up for another vote. An austerity budget would mean another $5.6 million would have to be cut.

The current budget is $193 million.

Susan Grill, president of the Teaching Assistants and Teacher Aids of East Ramapo, said she was told her union would lose 35 teaching assistants in the proposed budget. Now, with the budget defeated, "I could lose 70," she said. "It just gets worse and worse."

The teaching assistants range in age from 20 to 70, said Grill, and they are scared about losing their jobs and health insurance. Nearly half of them are licensed teachers waiting to get teaching jobs. She said many of them are single.

The district could let go all non-mandated teaching assistants; the only ones who are mandated are for special education.

East Ramapo has a diverse district, with about 8,000 public school students and 17,000 private school students, Bielski said.

Administrators – except for two retiring who will not be replaced - were not targeted at all in the proposed budget, said Bielski, president of the 790-member local.

While there are many unions representing district school employees, Bielski said they met as a coalition and supported the budget.

On the table for further cuts is elimination of:

  • Kindergarten
  • after-school programs
  • marching band
  • summer school
  • assistant principals
  • instrumental music
  • sports

The beleaguered district has already been enduring yearly cuts. Last year, for example, four library clerks were cut across the district. Spring Valley High School librarian Debby Kleinberg, now without one of those clerks, handles 1,200 students and 100 faculty all on her own. This means she must check out and shelve books, order for the collection, assist students with research projects, instruct teachers in use of technical and audio equipment, order and maintain databases, oversee 29 computers, order DVD's for the curriculum, fix jammed copy machines, proctor exams, and more. An average of seven classes a day visit the library.

"If I'm doing the clerk's job I'm not teaching bibliography," said Kleinberg.

In addition to the 100-plus jobs already earmarked for elimination, the school board decided to close an elementary school and move the students to another building where ninth graders are now housed. The ninth graders will be spread out to one or both high schools, Bielski said. Plans are for the elementary school to be sold or leased.

There was no union or even administrative involvement in the decision, she said.

"One night there was a board meeting and they decided they were closing a school. The principal was shocked. There was no parent - no teacher-, no any kind of involvement," she said.

"It's a disgrace what's being done, not only here, but all over this country, to public education," she said.

Bielski said the unions were asked for a pay freeze, which they have been asked for before, but knowing that the district has barely any money in its reserves, "We figured out for the next five years they'd be asking us to take a freeze. Taking a freeze would just putting a band-aid on this."

No central administrative positions were cut in the proposed budget, she pointed out, while 106 other employees were.

"I don't know why all of a sudden teachers are the target," she said. "We're being blamed because people can vote on a school budget. It's the banks, government and stock exchange they should be mad at. Teachers didn't create this economic climate. Teachers are victims as well as everybody else."

Class sizes, which were held to 22, were raised to 24-28 students, she said. Now, it will likely go to about 28-29.

Try to picture a class of 28 or 29 students who are English as a Second Language learners without any teaching assistant, Grill said.