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March 06, 2020

NYSUT’s Fund Our Future bus tour wraps up in Watertown

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Caption: First-grade teacher Brooke Sholette (right) tells NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango about the need for more teaching assistants and help for students with special education needs. Photo by Sylvia Saunders.

For Watertown science teacher Jen Akins, the lack of state funding hit home when most of her students missed a question on the Living Environment Regents. When asked how electrophoresis is powered, the kids had no idea because they had never been exposed to the hands-on laboratory work that is common in many other schools. They were still using pen and paper.

Technology teacher Sarah Loudon voiced similar frustration as she showed visitors her “workshop” in a former storage closet behind the gymnasium. A freshly minted teacher who learned on state-of-the-art equipment at SUNY Oswego, Loudon was excited to introduce students to creative woodworking projects. But that’s hard to do when the North Country high school doesn’t even have a working miter saw, drill press, sander or band saw.

“If education is supposed to be the great equalizer, you have to fund it,” said Watertown Education Association President Rick Morris. “Our kids should have just as many opportunities and support services as students in more affluent districts. It’s not fair that our kids are missing out.”

The need for more state funding and educational equity was the underlying message as NYSUT’s Fund Our Future bus tour visited Watertown schools today. After visits to dozens of schools from the eastern tip of Long Island to Niagara Falls, the statewide tour has vividly shown what kids are missing when the state fails to provide adequate resources.

As lawmakers negotiate the 2020-21 state budget, NYSUT is calling for a $2.1 billion increase in state school aid. Part of this, $1.6 billion, would be 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 backs a progressive tax plan to raise revenues through new taxes on billionaires and ultra millionaires.

Watertown educators emphasized there is a dire need for more student support personnel and mental health services.

Christine Sutton, one of three home-school coordinators, has watched needs grow exponentially in her 13 years with the district. It used to be more preventive; she could work more closely with families and follow-up on ongoing issues like student attendance. “Now it’s more crisis level, where you have to prioritize,” she said. “Just standing here with you, I’ve gotten three phone calls and they’re all child safety (issues).”

Learn about NYSUT's "Fund Our Future" campaign at FundOurFutureNY.org.

Growing poverty and the changing nature of drug addiction have taken their toll, Sutton said. “It used to be ‘just alcohol and pot’ but now it’s meth, heroin and opioids,” she said.

“Rather than preventive work, we’re just putting out fires,” Morris added. “You’re just trying to figure out what’s the biggest fire today.”

Watertown, which is owed $11 million in Foundation Aid, has tried to tackle the growing needs by adding school counselors and a social worker, but they are stretched thin. “We finally have a full-time counselor in our school, but with 367 kids, he’s just trying to stay above water,” said kindergarten teacher Jaymi McMahon.

First-grade teacher Brooke Sholette spoke out on the need for more teaching assistants and help for students with special education needs. With 21 students, including four with IEPs, Sholette would love to have a teaching assistant, but that isn’t possible due to budget constraints.

“As a former TA and teacher’s aide myself, I know how much an extra set of hands can help – and is needed,” Sholette said. “The students deserve better. And the teachers deserve better. Every classroom should have a teaching assistant or aide.”

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