February 13, 2018

Educators from 'schools of last resort' tell lawmakers: Don't forget us, don't forget our students

Author: Matt Smith
Source:  NYSUT Communications
special act schools
Caption: Activists meet with Sen. Terrence Murphy. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Some of their students have been placed in their schools by the criminal justice system. They’re often angry, streetwise and prone to act out. Other children suffer from profound physical challenges, rendering them incapable of walking or standing. There are those with serious mental-health challenges. Some are autistic, and some are deaf.

“We serve students that can't be educated in their local schools — kids who have bounced from one school to another. We end up being the last stop. We're really the schools of last resort,” said Roseanna Cutietta of the Hawthorne–Cedar Knolls Federation of Teachers, who, along with other NYSUT members from across the state, gathered Tuesday in Albany to advocate for New York’s Special Act, 853, 4201 and 4410 schools.

It would be an understatement to say their job is tough.

Sometimes, these teachers suffer physical injuries at hands of students behaving unruly. Wages, meanwhile, are much lower than those paid to educators working in traditional public school districts. At some schools, in fact, it’s not uncommon to lose staff to jobs at area fast food restaurants. Health care coverage and retirement security — if they exist at all — fall far short, as well.

Still, the teachers and other education professionals who spoke with state lawmakers Tuesday weren’t looking for pity. Instead, they were just asking for a little help — or better yet, to not be forgotten during this year’s state budget deliberations.

Video and Posters

The volunteer lobbyists presented these videos to lawmakers at the Capitol to help them understand the importance of supporting New York’s Special Act, 853, 4201 and 4410 schools.

As they sat in a conference room on the eighth floor of the Legislative Office Building where they met with Republican state Sen. Terrence Murphy, R–Yorktown, they asked specifically for help in changing the way these special schools are funded, and in ensuring due process for staff. Later in the day, the activists also requested help from the Legislature in providing retention incentives to combat the loss of teachers — and especially teaching assistants — due to low wages.

"In schools like ours there's such a turnover that we can't keep people employed,” said Michelle DeLaurentis of The Hallen School in New Rochelle. “When we do find people who want to come, we want them to stay. We can't offer them money, we can't offer them good benefits, we can't offer them a retirement system — so why would they want to stay? Any incentive would be great — and wonderful for that purpose."

Because they have no taxing authority, these schools are funded through a state-government mechanism that typically lags two years behind, forcing institutions to seek hefty loans just to make payroll and keep up with escalating costs.

“Lunacy” is the way Murphy described the existing funding method.

“It has to be changed,” he said. “We need to fund these schools with the appropriate money for the current year.”

Though Murphy acknowledged that fixing the mechanism is a “lift,” Cutietta said failure is not an option.

“A teacher’s working conditions are a students' learning conditions,” she said. “And if we are not given what we need, we can't provide what's needed for our students."

special act schools
Senator Terrence Murphy (center) poses with NYSUT activists. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.