Community School science teacher Kathryn Lister remembered being excited to get a letter from the Buffalo school district on Aug. 11. She had been recommended for tenure after teaching in Buffalo for four years and thought she was finally being rewarded for her work.
But it wasn’t a tenure confirmation letter. It was a letter telling her she was out of a job.
“I was totally floored,” she said.
Lister and other bewildered and upset teachers showed up at a City Hall board room Wednesday night in hopes that the board would vote down plans to lay off 63 teachers, the highest number laid off in years. But they left disappointed.
Virtually all board members expressed grave concerns about the last-minute layoffs, wondering why they were made so late and worrying about the cascading effect it would have on many schools as teachers with higher seniority bump younger teachers out of a job.
After much discussion, however, the board voted, 6-2, in favor of the layoffs, with board members Barbara Nevergold and Mary Ruth Kapsiak voting against.
Nevergold pointed out that when the board approved its 2014-15 budget, the board was told that there would be cuts to certain special-education teachers, not that there would be widespread layoffs districtwide.
The special-education teachers wound up being reassigned and were not laid off. But many social studies, English, science and reading teachers were. Administrators said the layoffs were primarily the result of under-enrolled classes, but board members said the last-minute layoffs are not fair to students and that class sizes are growing in struggling schools.
“Maybe we saved some money, but we expanded our classroom sizes,” said board member Sharon Belton-Cottman.
The Buffalo Teachers Federation also said the last-minute layoffs weren’t fair to the teachers, who lost out on any chances to find other work over the summer.
While the board debated the matter in the board room, upset teachers milled around in the hallway. Five young teachers at STAR Academy said all of the subject-area teachers at their school lost their jobs. STAR Academy serves struggling students who are overage and undercredited, including many refugees. The school was praised by state Education Department leaders for its work last year, the first year the school opened.
“They are bumping people who created this school,” said social studies teacher Trish Ramsey, who is low on the seniority list, having worked in the district only one year.
She and the other teachers said they were worried that the struggling students they’ve been teaching “will freak out” when they realize all their old teachers are gone. Some of these students are homeless or living in places without running water, the teachers said. They added that they spent their own money to get special training to work with these children, particularly immigrants who speak little English.
“It’s difficult to swallow when you work so hard at your job,” said another STAR social studies teacher, Rachael Short. “It’s hard to say goodbye to those kids.”
Kapsiak said she wouldn’t support the cuts.
“The classroom should be the last place we’re looking to lay off,” she said. “This makes no sense. None. Not with the predicament we’re in.”
Chief Financial Officer Barbara Smith said many of the layoffs resulted from the closure of School 115, the former Pinnacle Charter School, as well as the fact that Bennett High School will not have a ninth grade starting this fall. In addition, many of the teacher reductions were expected because of lower class enrollments, she said. They are cuts that should have been made last year but were ultimately made this year.
That means schools like STAR Academy, which was a new school that hired many new teachers, were adversely affected because of union seniority and bumping rights.
In a letter to interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie and the board, Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore called the late layoffs notices “inhumane” and “callous.”
“To say that the callous late notice had anything to do with late notice from retiring teachers is an attempt to mislead you and the public,” he wrote. “Approximately 95 percent of the teachers notify the district in May that they will retire effective after the last day of school so they can begin receiving benefits then.”
Board member Larry Quinn, however, placed much of the blame for how the layoffs occurred at the feet of unions, saying unwieldy contracts are affecting who can be laid off and creating a complicated trickle-down effect that pushes out many teachers who are best suited to teach children.
“It’s a system that’s beating us,” Quinn said.
“Beating our kids,” added board member Theresa Harris-Tigg.
Human resources administrator Darren Brown said that the district is continuing to receive some resignations and retirements so he’s hopeful that up to 20 laid-off teachers may get their jobs back.
He said he was optimistic that many of the math teachers would be rehired and that art teachers would be given temporary assignments. He also expressed hope that the reading teachers who also have elementary certification may also be rehired to either permanent or temporary positions.
For a complete breakdown of Wednesday’s meeting, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone.