ALBANY — The state’s anticipated, broad 20% cuts to education are disgraceful, educators, union representatives, parents and students said outside the Capitol on Thursday, demanding officials stop school funding slashes that devastate the poorest districts.
State education leaders gathered for an event in West Capitol Park on Thursday afternoon to rally lawmakers after many school positions were eliminated in districts statewide as students began or prepare to resume in-person learning after Monday’s Labor Day holiday.
“In the face of a global pandemic, our students need us now more than ever,” Albany Public School Teachers Association President Laura Franz said. “We are once again asking educators to do more with less.”
Hundreds of public school faculty and staffing positions have been cut in poorer, inner-city and smaller rural districts as the state anticipates a $14 billion revenue gap and nearly $30 billion budget shortfall over two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The cuts to school staff and programming will impact the education of a generation of children, Albany City Schools parent Ginny Farrell said. The mom of three has a child studying engineering at the University of Buffalo.
“I’m so proud of the opportunities and education he got at Albany schools,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to say the same thing about my younger two.”
In a release Wednesday, the state teacher’s union announced it would take legal action against the state if it follows through with plans to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in school aid later this month. The state is also expected to slash healthcare and funding to local governments by 20%.
Jude Payton, a sixth-grader entering Albany’s Hackett Middle School, is enrolled in in-person learning for the 2020-21 academic year.
“If budget cuts aren’t restored, I will only be able to choose virtual learning,” Payton said, adding the negative impact the isolation had on his education. “The option is not for me.
“Many of my classmates were not able to join virtual classes last spring. They only had one laptop to share with two of their siblings or had access issues.”
Last year, Payton said he played cello in the school orchestra and participated in multiple clubs and extracurricular activities from chorus to the science fair, which will be eliminated under the state’s proposed cuts.
“I’m angry the system is failing us in this way,” Payton said.
The state’s expected 20% cuts to education disproportionately impact children and students in urban, low-income and minority neighborhoods.
“These disproportional cuts are truly upsetting,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany. “We know we had an educational achievement gap long before COVID.”
Schenectady City and the majority of Albany City school parents were forced to enroll their children in virtual, remote classes only because of district cuts.
“We know that’s a weak, second choice for any family,” Fahy said. “We have to put all our cards on the table.”
The Schenectady City School District laid off 425 employees, with potentially more expected later as the pandemic continues. The district eliminated 146 teaching positions and imposed several administration cuts.
“In the middle of a public health crisis, these cuts mean we are reopening the shell of a district to restart the year,” said Schenectady teacher’s union President Juliet Benaquisto. “Funding our future means ensuring students have access to fully-staffed, high-quality schools that will prepare them for the future ... and the sound education our students are entitled to.”
Several hundred empty chairs were placed around West Capitol Park on Thursday, signifying the educators and school staff members who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to a statement from the state teacher’s union.
School cuts run gamut statewide, which include 116 positions cut to date in Syracuse, 57 in Copiague and 44 in Norwich, among others.
Rochester City school administrators have eyed significant cuts, according to New York State United Teachers.
New York City has threatened thousands of layoffs if the expected 20% state cuts come to fruition.
In Genesee County, the Byron-Bergen Central School District laid off two workers due to reduced enrollment and need, not because of budget concerns due to the pandemic.
The Elba Central School District cut one school monitor position since the pandemic began in March.
Norwich City School District, in Chenango County, has 1,700 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and expects a $6 million state cut to its average $40 million budget, or to eliminate nearly half of the district’s 320 employees.
“This is the new reality we are facing unless someone fixes it,” Norwich Educators Organization President Eric Cunningham said. “We desperately need to fix it right now.”
The Alexander, Albion and Oakfield-Alabama central school districts have not laid off faculty or staff in 2020 due to budget cuts.
Some cuts stripped students of an option, mandating virtual learning for the 2020-21 academic year.
“Kids cannot have a full school experience sitting at a computer screen,” said Sonya Flowers, president of Albany Public Schools teacher’s union. “Our kids deserve more. They need interaction with hall monitors, teachers aides, assistants and teachers who know them the best. It is not fair. They deserve to see their friends and role models every day.
“We demand an equitable education for all. Please listen to our pleas and fund the schools.”
Several Democratic lawmakers demanded Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature take action to pass revenue-boosting measures to help the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall.
“Our state is broke ... why do we always take it out on the children?” Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Delmar, asked outside the Capitol on Thursday. “We have an absolute necessity to raise additional funds with various sources before our eyes. We have an obligation to do that.”
Assemblymember John McDonald III, D-Cohoes, suggested legalizing mobile sports betting and recreational marijuana in the state — issues Democratic lawmakers have been discussing and debating for several years.
“We at the state have to reconvene and tackle issues that have been put off for years,” McDonald said. “These items, in time, will bring revenue. It will not be immediate, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
McDonald also suggested taxing the state’s wealthiest residents.
Sen. Robert Jackson, D-Manhattan, is sponsoring a bill to extend the top state income tax rate to 11.82% for taxpayers whose New York taxable income is over $100 million and directs the revenue to foundation aid. Sens. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx; Brian Benjamin, D-Harlem; Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx; and Leroy Comrie, D-Queens, co-sponsor the legislation, which was referred to the Budget and Revenue Committee in January.
State teacher’s union President Andy Pallotta supports the bill, and any Legislature measure to tax the state’s ultra-rich and help close the budget gap, he said Thursday. Pallotta also supports officials using $2.5 in the state’s reserve, or “rainy day” fund, to avoid education cuts.
“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,” Pallotta said Thursday. “The message is simple: Fund our future and stop these cuts.”
Advocates with the state teacher’s union have repeatedly called for the federal government to pass the HEROES Act, which passed the House in May and proposes $500 billion in aid to states and localities.
State officials continue to plead for Congress to pass an additional coronavirus relief bill, providing billions in federal aid to U.S. states and localities to help bridge nationwide budget deficits caused by unprecedented pandemic spending.
“They are not stepping up to the plate,” Fahy said. “We will remember in November.”