March 24, 2011

Pink-slipped Sachem educators to lawmakers: Education cuts never heal

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT Newswire
Caption: Hundreds of Sachem educators - all of whom have received layoff notices - advocated for their schools, students and jobs on Wednesday. About two dozen presented personal letters to a member of the governor's staff, asking the governor to restore the education cuts and to have the state's wealthiest citizens pay their fair share in taxes.

It was day filled with tears and fears, chants and cheering, and an iron will to do what is right for the students and schools of Sachem, Suffolk County.

More than 350 Sachem educators filled seven buses at 5 in the morning for the four-hour trip to Albany.

Just about everyone of them had been told in the past month that their jobs would be on the chopping block.

"We are from a district that has met every standard for economy and for improving student performance," said John Heslin, president of the Sachem Central Teachers Association. "When the state announced a 13.9 percent aid cut, we knew that meant $16 million cut from our budget. It was an impossible situation. Programs would have to be eliminated, staff would be reduced, students would suffer. Every time a teacher is cut, a kid is hurt."

But Sachem isn't one of those districts where people like to point fingers and play the blame game. The union, the school board and district leaders are working cooperatively to minimize the damage to their schools, in the face of the governor's devastating cuts.

Bringing the educators and district officials to the state Capitol to tell Sachem's story was a key part of their action plan. 

The legislative office building and Capitol were filled with hundreds of educators in Sachem red t-shirts that read: "This is what a laid-off teacher looks like."

Leslie Routh is a third-year, second grade teacher at Hiawatha Elementary, and she's on the layoff list.

She worries about her students if there are layoffs, and balloons in class size.

"Every moment in their lives is so monumental, if you miss a moment, you have to take a longer route to get them where they need to go," she told legislators. "You can't tell a district to lay off 400 people and think it's all going to work."

She urges other NYSUT members to  lobby their legislators like Sachem has done. "It's a very easy process, fighting for your students and yourself. Even if you just write a letter, every little bit helps."

China Lacarreaux, a third-year fourth grade teacher, spent hours the night before with colleagues making signs to carry in the Capitol:  "Education cuts never heal,"  "New York's race to the bottom" and "In memory of jobs lost to budget cuts."

"Being on the layoff list is nerve wracking for me," she said, "and these cuts would be a catastrophe for my students. They will not be able to receive the quality education Sachem has provided them up to this point."

"Education is supposed to be a priority for America," she said. "The governor should extend the millionaires' tax - it wouldn't hurt them and it would help our students."

The teachers chanted as they walked the corridors of power and as they delivered hand-written letters to legislators describing the reach of the proposed cuts and their impact on the community. They cheered Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera who joined them to show his support, thanked legislators and staff who were supportive and will remember those who were not on their side in the school funding debate.

Two dozen of them even presented their personal letters about the budget cuts to a member of the governor's staff.

They applauded Sachem's state Senator John Flanagan, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

"I want to work with you. I want to be your advocate," Flanagan told them.  "When wealthy districts get the same cut Sachem receives, I know it's not the same impact. We are trying to recognize the needs of districts that have gotten disproportionately whacked."

They cheered NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, who reminded them they are part of a larger fight. "When you speak to legislators today, remind them - you can't talk about a knowledge-based economy, and then talk about laying off 15,000 educators."

The Sachem advocates climbed on their buses for the long ride home after five exhausting hours. They were tired but proud.

As fifth grade social studies teacher Charles La Bella put it, "How could I face my kids tomorrow if I didn't stand up for them today?"