Schenectady schools parent Tracy Cimino described the hopes for her son entering 10th grade at the high school this year.
Nathaniel is autistic and did not do well in the relative isolation of remote learning last spring, so the family made the difficult decision to opt in to in-school special education classes this fall.
“He is most successful when interacting with teachers. Imagine how we felt when on Friday we learned that this choice was taken away from us,” Cimino said today at a news conference in Albany to stop the pandemic-related cuts in state education aid. “These cuts will hurt my family.”
Schenectady is facing at least 425 job cuts right now, with more to come. The layoffs occurring across New York state hit high-need city districts hardest.
“At a time when their need is the greatest (Schenectady students) will again receive the least,” said Cimino, who is also a member of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers.
“These cuts mean we are essentially reopening a shell of a district this year,” said SFT President Juliet Benaquisto. “Our students will not have the support they need and we will struggle to provide the sound basic education they are entitled to under the state Constitution.”
Ginnie Farrell, a parent of two Albany High students and one graduate, said these cuts will have lasting impacts.
“These cuts will set our children back years,” she said. “A global health crisis is not a time to cut. It’s a time to do more, so we won’t have a lost generation of students.”
NYSUT organized the capitol event — held in front of 500 empty chairs, each representing 20 potential laid off educators statewide over the next month — to call for solutions. The union is lobbying for a federal aid package, state action to raise revenues and other fiscal fixes — whatever it takes.
“If this is not the time to do what is right for our public schools and our students, I don’t know when that time will come,” said Laura Franz, president of the Albany Public School Teachers Association. “Our schools cannot afford to wait any longer. We need to fund our future.”
Sonya Flowers, president of the Albany Public School United Employees, said, “Kids cannot have a full school experience sitting in front of a computer screen for hours and hours a day. Our kids deserve more, and we demand more for them, that our state and federal legislators take action.”
Albany student Jude Caton was looking forward to beginning sixth grade in person this year, including basketball and the spelling bee and the science fair, “some of the best things” about school.
“If the budget cuts aren’t restored, I’ll only be able to choose virtual learning,” he said. He’ll miss the social contact with friends, he said, and noted that remote learning just doesn’t work for a lot of kids.
“Many of my classmates were not able to join virtual classes last spring because they had only one laptop and two siblings to share it with, or they had problems with access to the Internet,” he said. “I’m angry that the system is failing us this way.”
School districts around the state already have cut or are poised to cut hundreds of positions, in Albany, Schenectady, Syracuse, Copiague and Norwich. New York City and Rochester plan to make cuts, too.
Eric Cunningham, the union president in Norwich, said, “We had 320 employees. In the past week, the district cut 50 of those positions, and that was the first of three cuts planned if nothing changes.” It could cut the staff in half at one of the largest employers in the city.
“We started the year with $20 million cut from the operating budget,” said Bill Scott, president of the Syracuse TA, which has had 116 layoffs so far. “We worked with the district to ensure we could continue to operate, but an additional 20 percent would be devastating.
“With 80 percent of the district’s students living in poverty, my district will be disproportionately impacted,” he said.
State Sen. Neil Breslin and members of the Assembly Patricia Fahy and John McDonald also spoke out to express support for the need to find more revenue.
The union is drawing a line in the sand.
“Make no mistake, the federal government must do its part, but in the absence of that support, it is incumbent upon our state leaders to intervene and prevent these devastating cuts,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
“The message is simple: Fund our future and stop these cuts.”