December 20, 2019

Heartless school board breaks a city’s heart; layoffs in Rochester set to take effect Jan. 1

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT Communications
rochester rally
Caption: More than 1,000 activists braved the cold to voice strong opposition to the Rochester board of education's proposed mid-year layoffs. Photo by Becky Miller.

More than 1,000 Rochester teachers, paraprofessionals, parents and students showed up at Thursday’s “Rally to Spare Our Students” and the city school board meeting to demand that the board reject the superintendent’s ill-conceived plan for disruptive mid-year cuts.

As dusk fell, local union presidents Adam Urbanski of the Rochester Teachers Association and Angie Rivera of the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals, stood on a soapbox in a light snowfall to announce that the projected layoffs had been reduced significantly.

Hundreds of pickets on Broad Street outside the RCSD building howled with hope! But they wanted even more. As Rivera said: “We need zero cuts!”

The good feelings didn’t last.

At the end of the night, after hearing testimony from 92 people, all of whom pleaded for a reprieve, the board voted to enact the proposed midyear cuts that NYSUT President Andy Pallotta labeled “a disaster” and “a national disgrace.”

While the union and community protest significantly reduced the number of layoffs, the school board approved 155 layoffs, including 109 teachers and 10 paraprofessionals, effective Jan. 1. Initially, the superintendent proposed cutting 287 jobs.

When the final vote was cast, emotional educators erupted in outrage. They hugged and cried and disrupted the rest of the meeting as they made their way to the exits.

“It’s shameful what this board did tonight,” Urbanski said outside the room. “Absolutely shameful.”

"It's very clear that if you had gotten the #FoundationAid that you deserve, the City of Rochester would actually have a surplus right now and not be in this position," said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.

“There is no reason to have confidence in this board of education or in this superintendent. They had time. Christmas break is coming. We could have worked together to try to work something out. We didn’t break off discussions, and the legislature is not coming back into session until January.”

If the board waited, Urbanski said, the state Legislature could have taken action to resolve the budget deficit, and anyway the school board should have waited until the end of the school year to enact brutal layoffs and reduction in services.

Resources for laid-off members

Few events are as devastating as losing a job. NYSUT will waive statewide union dues for at least two years for laid-off members. That membership ensures eligibility to participate in NYSUT Member Benefits and NYSUT Social Services. It also entitles laid-off members to free legal consultation.

Resources are also available from the American Federation of Teachers (unionplus.org/hardship) and the National Education Association (neamb.com/assistance).

“There was the opportunity to do all that,” he said, “and to make cuts to this central office, which this superintendent refuses to make, and this board is too scared to stand up to him.”

Pallotta said NYSUT and the RTA and RAP would hold a special event in Albany Jan. 14 to highlight the plight of the district. Earlier, he told the board that if the state had met its obligation to provide $85 million in Foundation Aid to RCSD, this would never have happened.

Ever since the layoffs were proposed several weeks ago, RTA and RAP members told the district that cutting teachers and support staff would disrupt the relationships they’ve built with their students.

Students were so upset after layoffs were proposed that thousands walked out of schools 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.”

Students rendered heartfelt testimony Thursday night. Said one girl: “You’re saving money, but at what cost? Our education? When I heard the news, I cried my eyes out. Please don’t take my teachers.”

In recent weeks, parents, educators and community members, along with allies across the country, took to wearing red, repeating the “Red for Ed” demonstration of solidarity that has become so common in this era of teacher uprisings.

It has become a national story. The day before the board vote, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tweeted, “I stand with Rochester students!” On the day of the rally, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Ma., and Vice President Joe Biden tweeted in support, too.

NYSUT and the RTA have tried to help laid off educators make a smooth transition. NYSUT legal and certification experts have provided information and consults. The RTA has hosted job recruiters from districts in Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, Newark, Niagara Falls and more who conducted interviews with members who received notices.

On Friday, RTA and RAP members will wear black to protest the devastating mid-year cuts that will damage the schools and the community for years to come.

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