The layoff of 335 school employees sparked intense outrage and genuine concern for the impact it will have on student education during Wednesday evening’s school board meeting at John F. Kennedy High School.
“My heart is broken not because I will be out of work, but because I will not be able to help the students of Paterson anymore because you’ve told me the music I bring to the students is not worth keeping,” said Sarah Culp, School 12 music teacher, who received a pink slip on Friday.
The district last week laid off 175 teachers and 116 personal and instructional aides enacting the cuts that were included in schools budget that was approved in March with nearly $26 million in reduction.
“Our students and the school district will be losing some of the most dynamic, highly energetic, and quality staff members in all of the state of New Jersey,” said School 20 teacher John McEntee, one of the two men likely to succeed outgoing teachers union president Peter Tirri.
Some of those students, largely from School 7, attended the meeting to express their displeasure at both the school board and state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans.
“You guys are crazy,” said School 7 student Vanessa Cruz in describing the actions of the district. “Teachers are important,” she said, “without them students won’t succeed in anything in life.”
About a dozen students scolded Evans for a $1.6 million contract to train teachers and other school staff with the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute For Learning (IFL). School board members were not spared by the students. How was the trip to Tennessee? asked one student to board members.
One student called Evans a “liar” because he had said in a press statement that one or two teachers will be cut at a given school. School 7 students repeatedly said 14 staff members were being let go at their school among them a beloved music teacher and Juilliard School graduate Reginald Quinerly.
“We didn’t cut 14,” said Evans. He read from a sheet and said he will double check with that school’s principal.
“I’m especially embarrassed when students come here and beg for an education that they are entitled have. I’m ashamed of that,” said Jonathan Hodges, school board president.
“These are very difficult times,” said Evans. He blamed much of the workforce reduction on flat funding from the state. The superintendent said the district will hold job fairs for the laid off employees to assist them in finding posts in nearby districts.
The auditorium of the Preakness Avenue high school had approximately 100 teachers who gathered, some with signs, to express their displeasure at the district’s actions. 27 people signed up to speak during public portion mostly teachers, students, few parents, and even fewer community leaders.
“How can this body accept the layoffs knowing the impact it will have not only on the Paterson public schools but to the community? asked Napier Academy teacher Javier Fresse, one of the two men likely to take charge of the Paterson Education Association, the teachers union.
“You are adding more violence to the streets,” added a parent who briefly spoke. Rosie Grant, executive director of education advocacy the Paterson Education Fund, said the cuts will help strengthen the school to prison pipeline.
“Our kids die when they are not educated,” said Hodges alluding the city’s youth violence problem.
Grant also predicted “overcrowded classrooms” in the district that will make it much more difficult for city students to absorb knowledge.
“This is going to cause serious hardship for the community,” said Errol Kerr, school board member. He said more than 100 of those cut are city residents. With city unemployment rate at almost 13-percent, twice the New Jersey average, Christopher Irving, school board member, expressed concerns.
Both Irving and Kerr mentioned the ripple effect it will have on city families and students. “These cuts have the potential to shake our city to its core,” said Manny Martinez, school board member.
The day Culp, the School 12 music teacher, received her layoff notice, was the same day about two dozen guitars and other instruments arrived at the school. Money for the instruments came from insurance funds after equipment was damaged at the school’s music room due to a fire.
Culp came on board in 2013 after the school had been without a music teacher for a while, she said. “The students helped me carry the boxes and now they will remain in boxes, untouched because there is no music teacher once again.”
It’s not just music and art that is being cut, said Hodges. Science and math programs have also been cut, he said.
Culp quoted war-time British prime minister Winston Churchill who was asked to cut art funding in favor of the war effort, Churchill is said to have replied: “Then what are we fighting for?”