By Alice Speri
End of semester examinations and summer vacation aren’t the only things on teachers’ and parents’ minds at P.S. 86 Kingsbridge Heights School in the Northwest Bronx. Prompted by cuts to the state budget leaving the city $5 billion short, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced today plans to further trim the public school system budget.
While schools are not the only institutions affected by the cuts, they are among those that will be hit the hardest, as some 6,700 educators’ jobs will be lost when the measures come into force in September. This number includes 300 teacher’s aides.
On Thursday, teachers and parents enjoying ice cream outside school were just learning about the latest cuts, but the news hardly surprised them.
“The first thing they do is cut services for children and the elderly, it’s very archaic the way they always attack the weakest members of society,” said T. Pannell, who teaches kindergarten through third grade and whose daughter is also in kindergarten at the school. Pannell added she is not worried about her own job and praised the principal of Kingsbridge Heights for his management of the school’s budget, but she said she is more concerned about the broader implications of the trend.
“It’s not a matter of making cuts but of being more efficient,” she said. “They are all in a ‘this has to go’ mentality, rather than ‘this has to be tightened,’ whether it’s with schools or with public housing.”
Pannell added that concern will grow even further when teachers and parents realize the scale of the cuts.
“Are we going to feel this? For sure,” she said. “But to see how much we are going to feel it we’ll have to wait until September.”
While some cuts seem inevitable, many agree there should be other ways to get around the problem.
“Personally I’d never get into the ‘the sky is falling and we’ll have to have layoffs’ mode,” Dee Alpert, publisher of The Special Education Muckraker, wrote in an e-mail. The website is devoted to special- education issues. Alpert suggested instead that little is being done to ensure greater efficiency. “I’d scream like mad about the well-documented fraud, waste and corruption and demand to know exactly what’s being done to end it.”
Being on the receiving end of the bureaucratic knife is not new to New York City’s public schools, and while many acknowledge that times are hard for everyone, they express concern and frustration that children always seem to be the first to pay the price.
“We don’t need any more school cuts, we have too many kids cramped in these classrooms,” said L. Delacruz, a sixth-grade teacher at Bronx Middle School 206, whose son is a third-grader at Kingsbridge Heights. Delacruz said that teachers and staffers alike are already overwhelmed as it is with one teacher often having as many as 30 students in each classroom. “That’s a lot of kids,” she added. “You can’t get them to learn anything.”
Class size has been an increasingly pressing issue in the city’s overcrowded schools.
“Class sizes are growing at an accelerating pace. Now we face the prospect of losing 6,000 teachers, as the student population grows,” said Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, a non-profit dedicated to reducing the number of students per classroom. “Together that is going to mean increases in class sizes to their largest in 20 years.”
Haimson added that the city’s money is wasted on bureaucracy and contradictory measures.
“The Department of Education is spending $5 million on recruiting and training new teachers,” she said. “And at the same time they want to lay off 6,000 teachers.”
Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, agreed.
“These cuts are particularly problematic in the city, which has spent the last three, four years really hiring new high quality teachers,” he said.
Others turn to those city agencies that were saved from the cuts to try to understand why schools are suffering so badly.
While Bloomberg had originally planned to cut 892 officer positions from the already downsized police department, he decided to leave the police untouched.
“Now the police is not getting cut because of all these terrorist threats,” said Delacruz, who admitted she wouldn’t know where to suggest cuts that would minimize damage to New Yorkers. “We shouldn’t see any cuts at all,” she said.
But the decision to cut teachers over police officers may have less to do with terrorism and more to do with financial interest, some suggest.
“This is a fiscal decision, police starting salaries are just much lower than ours,” said Mary Paranac, a fifth-grade teacher who has been working at Kingsbridge Heights for three years.
Paranac added that she is especially worried about the criteria for these cuts, a concern raised by many. Some have suggested using test scores to determine layoffs, while others recommend the decision is based on seniority, though both methods leave teachers fearing for their jobs.
“I’m concerned about how this is going to happen,” Paranac said, adding that she thinks the cuts are likely to affect new teachers in the Teach for America program or other young teachers who have been on the job for only one or two years. Like other teachers, Paranac praised the Kinsgbridge Heights principal for his devotion to his staff, but said many Bronx schools are not as fortunate. “I have many friends who are scared about the safety of their jobs,” she said.
Laying off teachers based on seniority may affect the quality of the teaching, some fear.
“I think the research suggests that there is no systematic relationship between experience and effectiveness in the classroom,” said Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who opposed cuts by seniority and also suggested that the correlation between class size and quality of learning is not as strong as many believe. “The problem is that we are going to have a reduction in teachers’ quality,” he said.
While some laid-off teachers may be able to find employment elsewhere, many end up leaving education altogether.
“My sister-in-law was a teacher in the East Bronx but she was laid off with the last cuts,” said Esly Griffin, a young mother of two, at Kingsbridge Heights on her way to pick up her 8-year old son. “Now she works in a hotel. But that’s not her job. She went to college to be a teacher.”
Additional reporting by Sunil Joshi and Shreeya Sinha.