“We have many children who don’t have what they need to succeed,” said second-grade teacher Tonia Billbe, at the Diven Elementary School in Elmira. Parents and community supporters donate clothing, boots, food. Through this generosity the students feel supported.
Diane Kerwan, vice president of the Elmira Teachers Association, treasures the relationships she has kindled with students who grow up in the halls of their buildings, especially those who need the most.
“The relationships with at-risk kids are not always automatic,” she said. “It’s earned, but it lasts.”
Sitting in the sunny school media center this morning as part of NYSUT’s “Fund Our Future” bus tour, Superintendent Hillary Austin said the staff strives to help “a large population of kids who need positive adults in their lives.”
They work wonders, she said, even though lack of funding has boosted class sizes, cut the number of school counselors and social workers to a minimum and limited programs like music and art.
The question becomes, “how do you do all this with limited resources?” Austin said.
“Elmira is a very special place,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango. “It speaks volumes about the educators and staff you have here, and about the community.
“But think about what they could accomplish if the state honored its mandated obligation to fully fund the district’s Foundation Aid.”
Elmira is owed $12 million in state Foundation Aid funding. Educators and administrators say full funding would go a long way toward addressing students’ social–emotional needs, providing after-school programming and continuing the district’s 1:1 device program, which allows students to access laptops needed for 21st century learning.
Now and for the past 10 years, it’s been the same story, said ETA President Margaret Schimizzi. “We’ve been told for many, many years now, we need to do more with less.”
“We do this time and again,” said Dora Leland, a NYSUT Board member from the nearby Horseheads TA. “This isn’t just an Elmira problem. We’re seeing this throughout our area.”
Later, the Fund Our Future tour continued in the small rural Schenevus Central School district. Schenevus is owed more than $700,000 in Foundation Aid and has been forced to cut AP classes, increase class sizes and go without a librarian because of underfunding.
Holding a meticulous handmade model of an Iroquois longhouse, teacher Susan Binney said, “This is what you can’t do when you have 27 kids in your class, but you can do when you have 12.”
Binney and fellow Schenevus United Teachers members Rebecca Lampron co-teach two sections of fourth and fifth-graders, a total of 54 students. Last year, they had less than half of that.
Six teachers retired last year, and five the year before, and none have been replaced. The faculty of 42 is now down to 31, a loss of 25 percent, and more will be lost at the end of this year.
Local union Co-President Maxine Reiff teaches English. “When the senior English teacher retired, I became two teachers.” Reiff’s co-president is Shana Ritton.
They are all doing it. “This is the severest of the severe,” DiBrango said. “Their class sizes are ballooning.”
Due to staffing losses, the only AP courses remaining in the district are US History and ELA.
“It hasn’t impacted the way I teach as much as it has affected my students,” said biology teacher JoAnn Fredette. With the lack of opportunity for rigorous, challenging courses, “these kids will not be able to compete.”
The failure to fund Foundation Aid is directly failing these students, DiBrango said.
“These staffing cuts and the lack of funding can change a child’s life,” she said.
As the state budget takes shape, NYSUT’s bus tour is visiting school districts around the state that, like Elmira and Schenevus have been underfunded by the state.
As a member of the state Educational Conference Board, NYSUT calls for a $2.1 billion increase in state aid in the 2020–21 state budget, which includes the first installment of a three-year phase-in of the more than $3.4 billion in Foundation Aid owed to more than 400 school districts.
The union supports new taxes on billionaires and ultramillionaires to generate the revenue needed to fully fund Foundation Aid and other state services.
Learn more about the "Fund Our Future" campaign at FundOurFutureNY.org.