It’s been said that troubled times can bring out a person’s best. It’s an adage that holds true for the roughly 300 members of the Lawrence Teachers' Association in Nassau County on Long Island.
For the past eight years, they’ve worked without a contract, bogged down by a school board rigidly opposed to negotiating without draconian givebacks. “They want us to eliminate class size limits and have new hires make 20 percent less,” said Lori Skonberg, LTA president. “They’ve said no to everything we’ve brought to the table, and every time there was an agreement, the board president has reneged.”
The Lawrence community is a study in contrasts. Although it’s Long Island’s third wealthiest, Lawrence residents pay the island’s lowest school taxes and the community has a poverty rate of over 70 percent. Of the more than 8,000 children living in the district, roughly 2,800 attend public schools — 77 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, 83 percent are minority.
“We basically have a board that holds us in contempt,” said Adam Berlin, an LTA negotiations committee member and 8th grade social studies teacher at the Lawrence Middle School. “There is a lack of money for books, school trips, basically anything we ask for the answer is no.”
With the district purse strings pulled tight, cost cutting trumps student need, explained Berlin. Lawrence public school students use aging textbooks and computers; learn beneath leaking ceilings in mold-filled classrooms; and the districts’ schools lack the mandated number of full-time aides and assistants.
Two schools now squeeze into a single building, producing disruption and educationally unsound age groupings. Teachers who retire or resign aren’t replaced, leading to program cuts and crowding. The physical education budget has been slashed by more than two-thirds. Other casualties include music and arts classes, counseling and occupational therapy services and adequate school security.
“I don’t use textbooks anymore because we don’t have enough,” said Berlin a 22-year LTA veteran. “My colleagues and I make photocopies — this would never have happened earlier in my career here.’’
Proud to be LTA
Despite the hardships, the local is far from beaten. In fact, what could have ripped the LTA apart has instead brought it closer together. Skonberg proudly notes that members wear union T-shirts daily — a different color each day — bearing the slogans “Proud to be LTA” on the back and and others that state “Educators make a difference and #contractnow” on the front. In May of 2017, a rally outside the middle and elementary schools attracted hundreds, including supporters from dozens of surrounding locals and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “We have the backs of the Lawrence teachers,” said Weingarten who pledged to “shed the light here until you have a fair contract.”
Additional pickets are planned for the spring, said Linda Gerard, LTA first vice president for health and safety, a social studies teacher at the high school. She noted that an LTA representative also attends meetings of the local Hispanic association since Latino children represent a majority of Lawrence students.
As Skonberg notes, Lawrence survived Hurricane Sandy, so the community is used to pulling together in times of trouble. “We are holding it together,” she said noting that the local strives to change the makeup of the local school board.
In the meantime, LTA members take pains to insulate students from the worst of the troubles. For Rachel Kreiss, LTA second vice president, a middle school special education teacher, that often means using a mix of creativity, ingenuity and a healthy infusion of her own funds, to differentiate the limited materials available for her students.
“Often the common core materials we’re provided with don’t work because they have trouble grasping the concepts,” said Kreiss explaining that often educators work together to revamp curriculum, brainstorming ideas and sharing what they can glean from outside sources. “Before we could order additional materials or attend trainings, now it’s always about cutting corners.”
Their efforts extend beyond the classroom. “Our students are so needy, we do a lot of charitable work within the community,” said Berlin, noting that each building has a Giving Tree Project run by union social workers to collect holiday gifts for needy students, and the local annually donates Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to district families. “We feel a moral obligation to do anything we can for our students.”
As a Lawrence graduate and long time community member, Gerard is dismayed by the changes she sees, but remains committed to the district. “I have an allegiance to this school, my children graduated from here and my grandkids will enter the district next year,” she said. “What’s being done to the students is no fault of theirs. I’m still going to give 100 percent.”