At 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning, social studies teacher Rakia Hardaway boarded a bus for Albany, wearing bright lipstick and an optimistic orange dress.
She joined colleagues and officers of the Rochester Teachers Association and the Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals for a trip to the Capitol to make things right for a high-needs district that was assaulted by more than 100 mid-year layoffs.
“I teach civics. I can’t teach kids to be active in government and not take action myself,” Hardaway said.
The Rochester education cuts have roiled the city and state. “When I say it was disheartening, I can’t underplay that. We’re a high poverty area and we try to provide normalcy and consistency for our students,” she said. “It was horrible.”
Originally the school board approved 155 layoffs on the eve of winter break – including 109 teachers and 10 paraprofessionals. Union actions, student walkouts and some found grant money have helped to restore some of those positions; services and outreach have been provided by the union to help those who lost jobs.
“Our members are learning this a precise example of the importance of not being alone,” said Adam Urbanski, president of the 3,400-member RTA.
Beneath the pain of the immediate loss, students and staff are angry at how the district has long been underfunded by state Foundation Aid, as many others have as well. According to the foundation formula, designed to provide enough state aid to high need districts to deliver a “sound, basic education,” the district is owed $86 million. The anger spilled over in a midday rally at the Legislative Office Building.
Student Sarah Adams, who helped coordinate student walkouts in December, said, “After two weeks of blood, sweat and many, many tears, our board voted to go ahead with those cuts,” she said. “My peers and I would be thriving with that foundation aid.”
Another student, Holly Beckwith Cohen, said, “Failing to fund our schools, you are telling us that our needs are not (a priority). And we hear you! We feel abandoned!”
The issue has drawn national attention.
“Those who have the least need the most,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, at the rally. She said Rochester is part of a national problem where corporations have closed shop and turned their backs on many areas. “The reason I am here is that Rochester is a community that should be focused on, not abandoned.”
Weingarten, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, state lawmakers, and leaders of the Alliance for Quality Education and Citizen Action spoke before a crowd that included many who had bused in from the Flower City that morning.
“It’s so appropriate we’re at the Well,” said Pallotta, speaking in front of a thin water feature trickling down the wall. “We come to the well of water…this beautiful Capitol belongs to you.”
The Empire State has more billionaires that anywhere in the entire world, he said. The state has money, and NYSUT has been advocating for more taxes on the wealthiest to increase revenues that could help fund education.
Assemblyman Harry Bronson, D-Rochester, and Sen. Robert Jackson, D-New York, were among the lawmakers who urged the group to keep pressure on elected officials.
Rochester students visited Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, and spoke about feeling abandoned mid-year when they lost teachers and support staff, and how students need be supported by physical and mental health programs because so many are challenged by poverty and trauma.
For those educators who lost their jobs, the RTA and NYSUT provided workshops and clinics on certification, unemployment, continuation of health benefits, and the rights of teachers to be on a preferred eligibility list. The RTA also hosted representatives of other districts who came to the Rochester union office to meet and hire some of the laid- off teachers.
“They contacted us,” RTA President Urbanski said. “They said: ‘Is it true that Rochester is laying off teachers at a time of an international teacher shortage?’ They couldn’t believe it. Many of them hired our laid-off teachers on the spot.”
Morale within the schools has plummeted, and Urbanksi said he is seeing an “unprecedented number” of mid-year retirements.
Angie Rivera, president of the Rochester Association of Para Professionals, said some of the laid off paras were recalled, but they did not want to come back for fear they would just be laid off again in June. They want steady, secure employment, she said.