Rochester School Board approves 175 layoffs, including 109 teachers 

The Rochester Board of Education approved laying off 109 teachers, as well as other district staff, in a split vote late Thursday night that moved spectators to tears.

Commissioners voted 5-to-2 in favor of the plan, which was proposed by Superintendent Terry Dade as a way of making up for $30 million the district overspent last academic year and to bridge the resulting budget gap, estimated at around $65 million, this year.

click to enlarge Emotions overflow among spectators after the Rochester school board voted to lay off 175 employees, including 109 teachers. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Emotions overflow among spectators after the Rochester school board voted to lay off 175 employees, including 109 teachers.
Board President Van White and Commissioner Natalie Sheppard cast the “no” votes, while Commissioners Elizabeth Hallmark, Beatriz LeBron, Cynthia Elliott, Judith Davis, and Willa Powell voted "yes."

Most of the layoffs will be effective beginning Jan. 1 or Jan. 10.

The final tally for teacher layoffs was lower than Dade’s initial proposal to let go of 168, and a modified plan to cut 152. But it was far from what representatives of the Rochester Teachers Association, parents, and students pleaded for in addressing the board one by one prior to the vote. The board heard from 95 speakers over the span of four hours, most of whom asked for layoffs to be avoided altogether.

Under the plan approved by the school board, the district will also lay off 32 support staff, like secretaries, 22 paraprofessionals, and 12 administrators.

There was a solemn air around the district’s central offices in the hours before the vote was cast. A rally on West Broad Street looked much the same as the others that have taken place at schools and in front of the district offices in recent weeks. Hundreds of teachers, students, parents, and allies let out chants of “Let teachers teach,” “Chop from the top,” and “No ifs, no buts, vote no on these cuts.” 
click to enlarge Superintendent Terry Dade and school board President Van White listen to one of the 95 speakers at Thursday night's meeting. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Superintendent Terry Dade and school board President Van White listen to one of the 95 speakers at Thursday night's meeting.

The rally also drew high-profile speakers including New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta, Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore, Assembly member Harry Bronson, as well as representatives of unions and government from across the New York. It was a final act of statewide solidarity before 175 district employees were put out of work.

“This is a complete disaster and a disgrace, I’ll use the two D words,” Pallotta said. “Nowhere in the state has this happened. The most impoverished city in the state is facing devastation to their schools. How unfair.”

The speakers who addressed the board asked for the state to step in, for the district to postpone the cuts until the end of the school year, or simply for an explanation of where the money went. Some called on the state to make good on aid they believed it owed the district. The Children’s Agenda has estimated the figure at $97 million.

“I’ve been cautioned, I’ve been told to tone it down because I don’t want to come off as the angry white guy,” said Adam Macintyre Ross, an art teacher at East High. “But you know what? I’m angry, I’m pissed, I’m furious. You guys are hurting my kids and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Later, board commissioners offered their own remarks as they cast their votes.

“The one thing I can say is I know these numbers, I know our budget, and I know we will not make payroll if we don’t make these cuts tonight,” LeBron said. “I don’t know how many teachers are going to work past February and March for free.”

But in her remarks, LeBron said that she spoke with a state auditor and learned it is likely the deficit will be larger than the $65 million estimate. There were simply no alternatives left, she said.

Speaking to the crowd before the meeting, Bronson implored the board to postpone the vote until June, to allow the teachers to finish out the school year and give the district a chance to try and get aid from the state.

“You don’t rip teachers out of the classroom, you don’t rip paraprofessionals out of the classroom,” Bronson said. “What do you do? You find the money and you fund your schools.”

That, according to the board members who supported the layoffs, was no longer an option.

“We simply don’t have the money to pay for it,” Hallmark said. “I’ve heard, ‘Wait until the end of the year.’ Well, every day that we delay, it adds to our deficit. If you think it’s bad now, just wait until the delay gets compounded next year. A delay will impact the liability of the district itself.”

Sheppard cast the first vote and she said that after meeting with students at rallies across the district, she could not in good conscience vote in favor of cuts. She said she was “profoundly moved” by elementary students. Of the teachers to be laid off, 99 of them are elementary school teachers, according to a list posted on the board’s website.

“It’s not just that you want to keep teachers, it’s that you want to keep your favorite teachers, teachers you built relationships with,” Sheppard said. “During the day I’m a social worker, I know how important relationships are, and kids should only have to worry about being kids, and adults should take care of adult matters.”

The room erupted into a frenzy as Davis, the fourth affirmative vote, stated her support. Sobbing could be heard through the chambers as chants of “Shame!” trailed the commissioners, who walked away from the dais after Davis’s vote and later came back into the room to finish their business.

Outside, as midnight crept close and snow wafted down onto the quiet city streets, a group of students stood and cried. A mother gently rubbed her daughter’s shoulder as she sunk her head into her arms. Inside, teachers continued to wave their signs and shout condemnation at the board.

Teachers, parents, and students ultimately lost a battle in a war that is far from over, Pallotta, the state teachers’ union representative said.

“This is going to travel across the state,” Pallotta said. “If you have this problem here in Rochester, you’re going to have it in Utica, you’re going to have it in Buffalo, you’re going to have it on Long Island.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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