Teachers and parents fight NYC cuts

June 9, 2010

A showdown looms over the future of New York City schools, writes Alexander Super.

LAYOFF THREATS, a wage freeze and slashed school budgets have spurred teachers, parents and community activists in New York City to picket and protest.

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) has called for a mass rally June 16 to oppose Mayor Michael Bloomberg's on-and-off threat to lay off 4,400 teachers. Bloomberg announced June 2 that he would take layoffs off the table, but instead impose a pay freeze.

Two days later, Bloomberg backpedaled, saying that he was still "up in the air" about teacher layoffs, owing to a likely $600 million gap in federal funds for the city's Medicaid budget. In any case, the mayor still plans to make deep cuts into school budgets.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Daily News, "45 non-school bureaucrats and managers got up to 14 percent raises just weeks before the freeze in teacher salaries. Along with increases for five new deputy chancellors, the raises will cost the agency more than $800,000."

Layoffs or no, school principals have been told that their budgets would be cut by 4 percent next year, for a total cut of $313 million. As the Daily News pointed out, "This most recent cut will mean schools have lost an average of about 12 percent of their budgets since 2007. Principals said they would be forced to cut after-school programs and tutoring for students who are struggling."

Teachers, parents and activists worked together on a citywide day of action against Bloomberg's cuts
Teachers, parents and activists worked together on a citywide day of action against Bloomberg's cuts (Angel Gonzalez | Grassroots Education Movement)

IN RESPONSE, a grassroots coalition of teachers, parents and students participated in a citywide day of protest on June 4 "to demand Mayor Bloomberg prioritize public school spending and withdraw his intention to further slash school-based budgets as well as his initial plan to fire over 6,000 teachers," said the Grassroots Education Movement's (GEM) press release.

At 25 schools across the city, people participated in informational pickets in front of their buildings. Later that afternoon, some 60 people attended a rally at Tweed Courthouse, headquarters of the New York City Department of Education.

Yelena Siwinski, co-chapter leader at PS 193K, in Brooklyn, said on a video posted on GEM's website:

We organized this...informational picketing to make the public more aware of all the budget cuts that we've suffered over the last couple of years. Our school just found out we have a quarter of a million dollar budget cut this year, so we're probably losing a couple of teachers, our class sizes are rising, we're losing an after school program and enrichment.

The picketers collected signatures on petitions and form letters, and distributed "educational materials to spread awareness about the destructive educational policies and decision-making of Mayor Bloomberg and his Chancellor, Joel Klein," according to GEM's press release.

The rallies struck a sympathetic note with passersby. Tom Crean, chapter leader at IS 218, reported that "around 40 IS 218 teachers, [paraprofessionals], counselors and secretaries (most of the staff) participated in a very lively protest outside our school between 7:45 and 8:30 this morning. A lot of passing cars and trucks honked their support."

Later in the day, at Tweed, students holding up signs protesting the proposed cuts to student Metrocards received honks of support from every MTA bus driver driving past the noisy rally. Vanessa, a high school student, said, "They don't think about the students, they don't care, and then people will stop coming to school." Her friend Dashka added, "Education is the primary thing, why are they cutting that first?"

Melissa, a teacher from the Hamilton Heights School, was angry at "the partnership between Wall Street and the Department of Education...charter [schools] are a good example of how Wall Street is so organized around this."

Sam Coleman, one of the organizers of the day of action with GEM, said at the final rally on the steps of the courthouse, "pay your fair share, Wall Street...budget cuts shouldn't be coming off the backs of students, teachers and parents."

The signs and chants of the protest clearly identified Wall Street as the beneficiaries of governmental largesse, while schools are starved for funds. Picketers chanted, "Money for books, not Wall Street crooks"; "Time for a switch, tax the rich"; and "Stop the privatization of public education." They carried signs with similar slogans in English, Spanish and at least one in Arabic.

The signs were made at a New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) sign-making party the previous weekend, as part of the grassroots activists' mobilization plan. It is a very different strategy than the one currently being pursued by the UFT leadership, which has done little but lobby, send letters and faxes, and agree to make concessionary "better-than-nothing" deals with the city.

Now, however, Bloomberg has upped the ante by his move to unilaterally freeze teacher raises rather than impose layoffs. Apparently, the UFT wasn't even consulted. But since the teachers have been working without a contract, Bloomberg is claiming the authority to drop his earlier proposal for 2 percent raises in each of the next two years. In effect, Bloomberg is imposing terms of an agreement on the union rather than negotiating with it.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a press release and mass e-mail to members: "The mayor has the power to unilaterally rescind the proposed layoffs, and I'm glad that he has made the right decision to avoid massive disruptions to our schools. But he does NOT have the power to unilaterally decide on the teachers' contract, and we have reached NO agreement on his proposal to freeze teacher pay."

Bloomberg has already proposed cuts and layoffs totaling $400 million from the public schools this year. According to the Independent Budget Office, $546 million has been cut from public education since the passage of the June 2009 New York City budget. Yet the city has budgeted $5 million for new teacher recruitment, and $35 million is being spent on administrative raises and new hires.

THE UFT's June 26 rally at City Hall is an important step forward. But we also need more of the kind of rank-and-file organizing seen on June 4. The GEM organizers showed what is possible when teachers, under an onslaught of attacks--from testing recently being included as part of an evaluation deal to an expansion of charter schools in the state--reach out to their colleagues, parents and students and spend time organizing a fightback.

According to the GEM press release, "This grassroots day of actions grew out from a community public school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where parents and teachers have been organizing around disastrous public education policies, including the issue of testing."

At that school, PS 24, some 125 people turned out at the morning rally on June 4. As Sam Coleman, one of the lead organizers of the event, said:

The staff at PS 24 decided we could not sit idly by while our students' education and our livelihoods were being threatened. We realized the only voice that will ever be heard is that of the whole school community--parents, students, and staff. We want to show the public and politicians that we are willing to take action in order to force a change in political priorities. The whole PS 24 community demands fully and equitably funded public education for all New York City children.

Meanwhile, teachers at the Bronx High School of Science are organizing their own rally outside the mayor's home June 10 to protest arbitrary and unfair discipline imposed on union activists.

Next comes the UFT's Save Our City rally on June 16 at 4:30 pm at City Hall. Activists will follow up with a GEM meeting on June 22.

In order to beat back the neoliberal attack on public education being pursued by politicians from Bloomberg to President Barack Obama, we need to rebuild a fighting union, from the school level on up.

Further Reading

From the archives