Struggling New York School Workers Get Knocked Hard in Budget War

Michelle Chen October 7, 2011

New York City workers rally against budget cuts.

When kids across New York City shuf­fle into their class­rooms next week, they’ll dis­cov­er that a few mem­bers of their school com­mu­ni­ty won’t be attend­ing, and their absence will be sore­ly felt.

Fresh casu­al­ties of the city’s bud­get wars, about 700 city school aides and oth­er sup­port per­son­nel have been expelled. As of Octo­ber 7, many schools will have to adjust to few­er hall mon­i­tors, par­ent coor­di­na­tors, and oth­er assis­tants who help admin­is­tra­tors and teach­ers cope with stuffed class­rooms, dwin­dling sup­ply cab­i­nets, and end­less stan­dard­ized tests.

At an Occu­py Wall Street sol­i­dar­i­ty ral­ly on Wednes­day, Lil­lian Roberts, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the promi­nent munic­i­pal union Dis­trict Coun­cil 37, called the school work­ers’ plight a text­book exam­ple of New York’s eco­nom­ic injus­tices, from an anti-work­er tax struc­ture to the unabashed greed of the city’s finan­cial sector:

Just this week, more than 700 low-paid DC 37 mem­bers, main­ly work­ers of col­or at the NYC Dept. of Edu­ca­tion, will lose their jobs while wealthy pri­vate con­trac­tors will con­tin­ue receiv­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in pay­ments from New York City and the [Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion (DOE)]. The Occu­py Wall Street’ pro­tes­tors have said enough is enough, stop the destruc­tive cor­po­rate greed. We couldn’t agree more.

The New York Times pro­files one of the many work­ers of col­or who may go from the school grounds to the unem­ploy­ment line:

When Mar­i­leysi Gar­cia received a let­ter from the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion on Sept. 20 that said her job as a par­ent coor­di­na­tor would be elim­i­nat­ed, the first peo­ple she picked up the phone to call were the fam­i­lies of Bronx Lead­er­ship Acad­e­my High School.

They iden­ti­fy with me because I’m His­pan­ic myself and come from a low-income back­ground,” she said, refer­ring to the par­ents that she works with, many of whom she said are also minor­i­ty res­i­dents. They knew that I was not just there to col­lect a check, but to real­ly help them answer their questions.”

Accord­ing to a Times analy­sis, the cuts will fall on about 350 schools, many in the city’s most trou­bled neigh­bor­hoods, where stu­dents tend to lag aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly and strug­gle with pover­ty and oth­er edu­ca­tion­al obsta­cles. They include P.S. 153 in Harlem, where 85 per­cent of stu­dents are poor enough to qual­i­fy for free school lunch. The math is trag­i­cal­ly simple:

At Inter­me­di­ate School 195, also in Harlem, where 53 per­cent of stu­dents per­formed well below aver­age in last year’s state stan­dard­ized tests, six school aides would be let go. … Of the 44 low-per­form­ing mid­dle and high schools receiv­ing fed­er­al mon­ey, 19 would expe­ri­ence cuts of one to four work­ers, the list of lay­offs shows.

With posi­tions that are often part time and typ­i­cal­ly pay far less than teach­ing jobs, school aides and oth­er sup­port work­ers have long been easy tar­gets in bud­get bat­tles. In 2009, 500 of them lost jobs due to lay­offs. Then last year, they may have bare­ly escaped more cuts due main­ly to Washington’s emer­gency bailout of state edu­ca­tion bud­gets. Now fed­er­al sup­port is fast evap­o­rat­ing, which leaves dis­tricts to com­pen­sate by mak­ing the cut­backs they had been putting off.

It’s not just that strug­gling schools will lose many crit­i­cal sup­port posi­tions; the lay­offs could also strike a blow to hun­dreds of low-income fam­i­lies sup­port­ed by these jobs. On the one hand, this reflects a trend of dis­in­vest­ment and seg­re­ga­tion through­out the school sys­tem. Yet, advo­cates say the cuts were large­ly unnec­es­sary — just a byprod­uct of May­or Michael Bloomberg’s dri­ve to teach labor a les­son. Union lead­ers charge that the city is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly post­ing employ­ment ads adver­tis­ing vacan­cies for the same jobs per­formed by these union­ized pub­lic employ­ees.” So why get rid of jobs and adver­tise vacan­cies at the same time?

The back sto­ry is the peren­ni­al grid­lock sur­round­ing the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion con­tract talks. While the teach­ers’ union was spared after tak­ing a series of con­ces­sions, the school aides’ union DC37 pushed back hard against a pro­pos­al to raid union health­care funds. And the union fears the May­or may now be seek­ing pay­back by gut­ting jobs.

As DC37 seeks a City Coun­cil hear­ing on whether Bloomberg’s lay­offs could some­how be stopped, Asso­ciate Direc­tor Hen­ry Gar­ri­do told In These Times, He’s not tar­get­ing any oth­er union. To score some polit­i­cal points he’s putting kids in jeopardy.”

To Gar­ri­do, a Domini­can-born son of an activist with the gar­ment work­ers’ union UNITE, the cuts fol­low the con­tours of inequal­i­ty in New York City. Many of these work­ers have strug­gled to find a foothold in the pub­lic work­force after liv­ing on pub­lic assis­tance. With the job cuts, he said, You’re send­ing them back to the same place. They don’t have a lot to give.”

Nei­ther do the schools. Many schools may have to rely on teach­ers to do the logis­ti­cal jobs aides once did, heap­ing more work on top of bur­den of over­crowd­ing. Accord­ing to a sur­vey Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, which has sup­port­ed DC37’s fight against the lay­offs, about 256,000 stu­dents, rough­ly a quar­ter of total enroll­ment, spend at least part of the school day in an over­crowd­ed class,” reports the Times.

Noah Ash­er Gold­en, an edu­ca­tor who helps teach­ers devel­op lit­er­a­cy-coach­ing pro­grams, recent­ly got the abrupt news that he would lose the assis­tance of two class­room aides. That means the loss of day-to-day sup­port with tasks like com­put­er main­te­nance and tak­ing atten­dance. He told ITT that while these jobs may be seen as falling out­side the core of instruc­tion and test prepa­ra­tion, The things that you don’t see… the invis­i­ble work of a school, is done by teach­ers aides.” He added, It’s dis­gust­ing and moral­ly abhor­rent that the May­or is play­ing pow­er pol­i­tics with some of the most vul­ner­a­ble work­ers in the DOE.”

Even if the lay­offs can’t be avoid­ed, the invis­i­ble” work­ers are mak­ing their pres­ence known on the streets of the finan­cial dis­trict. DC 37 was just one of many unions who’ve joined the Occu­pied Wall Street protests to show that their labor must not be tak­en for grant­ed. Because for the kids try­ing to get the most out of their neglect­ed schools, their absence is inexcusable.

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Update: As of the week­end of Octo­ber 7, the size and scope of the lay­offs are still unfold­ing, accord­ing to the Times, with per­haps a sec­ond round of lay­offs pending.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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