A $1.3 billion cut in state education spending and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 4,600 projected teacher layoffs are personal for Andrea Rodriguez, an eighth grader at Columbia Secondary School.
According to initial estimates, Columbia Secondary, a public middle school with a University partnership located on West 123rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, could lose 70 percent of its teachers this fall.
“We already have problems with our faculty because there’s not … enough to cover all the students,” Rodriguez said.
Columbia Secondary may lose a higher percentage of its teachers than any other school in the city, due to its young staff and the city’s “last-in, first-out” policy, which means that newer teachers are laid off first.
According to initial numbers released by the city Department of Education, a number of Upper West Side and West Harlem schools will lose more than 10 percent of their staffs, though those numbers are subject to significant change as budgets are finalized.
In a March 27 statement about the 2011 state budget, Bloomberg said that while “the outcome is disappointing and the results will be painful,” the city hopes to do the best job possible by making changes, which include “ending the last-in, first-out law that exacerbates the negative impact of Albany’s teacher layoffs on our public school children.”
But the connection being made between the seniority system and potential layoffs has some local politicians, principals and residents crying foul.
Some, like District 3 Community Education Council president Noah Gotbaum, have suggested that the mayor’s release of projected teacher layoffs by each school is an attempt to stimulate an overthrow of the seniority system. But Gotbaum said that changing the “last-in, first-out” policy should not be the priority.
“How you assess teachers versus this layoff issue is something the mayor’s using to take people’s eye off of what is really going on,” Gotbaum said, adding that Bloomberg should be “fighting to keep the teachers, to keep class sizes low, to retain our programs.”
“Instead he’s focusing on an issue that really has no relevance right now,” Gotbaum said.
Others agree that there has been too great of an emphasis placed on the system for determining who is laid off, and too little effort made to avoid teacher layoffs altogether.
“To me, there’s no good answer. No teachers in the classroom should be cut, period,” City Council member Gale Brewer said, noting that she has heard many complaints about the proposed layoffs from schools and parents in her Upper West Side district. “Every single school in District 3 is overcrowded, classes are large, and we cannot afford to lose any teachers.”
Brett Gallini, principal of PS 165 on 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue—which could lose 14 percent of its teachers—stressed the importance of every teacher, regardless of experience.
“All of my teachers are very strong, so losing any staff in my school … would be a loss for our children,” Gallini said.
Others, including Gotbaum, called into question a recent report that the city DOE would be spending millions to upgrade school technology at the same time as laying off teachers.
Ian Kenyon, a Columbia Secondary eighth grader, said Bloomberg’s priorities are skewed.
“Well, I know the governor just cut spending, I read it in the Times yesterday that ... he [Bloomberg] is spending $500 million on the new technology, wiring and all that,” Kenyon said. “I think that they could put that … instead towards keeping teachers, even though they say that with the capital they can’t put it towards salaries.”
Pam Price, assistant principal at PS 161 on 133rd Street and Amsterdam—a school with projected cuts of 11 percent of its teaching staff—said she’s “dissatisfied” by the state’s attempt to balance the budget through cutting funding for education. She sees those cuts as indicative of a lack of appreciation for the teachers and public education as a whole.
“I think there are other things that can be done than just … go straight at cutting money from public education. And does it go along with this fever of public education being inadequate?” Price said.
The consequences of teacher layoffs would be damaging to everyone, she said, citing larger class sizes in particular.
“You’re going to have too many children in the classroom with one teacher who is going to burn out,” Price said. “We need to give our children the very best.”
Rodriguez said that she doesn’t think her teachers at Columbia Secondary are worried yet about losing their jobs.
“It’s really good, it’s an amazing school, so our teachers aren’t really worried that they are going to get fired,” she said.
But those budget decisions will undoubtedly change the make-up of the school’s staff next year. Gary Biester, principal of Columbia Secondary School, said that he understands the complexity of the issue and hopes the layoffs don’t happen.
“Losing so many would be devastating to our mission,” Biester said.