July 3, 2014
By Beth Borzone
Hempstead, NY – June 24 – Approximately 200 teachers and community members rallied on Peninsula Boulevard outside a Hempstead School District building to protest the sudden decision by the Hempstead Board of Education to cut 47 teachers. Teachers and community members were skeptical of Board claims that there is not enough money and were angry that they were locked out of a Board of Education meeting where they hoped to express their concerns about the board’s decision.
“We are here because last Thursday (June 19), the Board of Education voted to excess 47 teachers, said Elias Mestiza, President of Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association, “They are claiming there is no money, but the Board of Education two or three weeks ago voted to allocate $1.5 million from the budget to pay their legal fees for the challenges of the (school board) election. And there’s no money? You want to cut the services to children? That was the main reason we came out and said, you know, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
Most of the teachers slated to be cut are reading or elementary classroom teachers, according to Audrey Demas, a reading teacher with 11 years in the Hempstead School district. However, attendance teachers and guidance counselors are also on the list, she said.
“It makes no sense at all,” Demas said, “In each of the elementary schools we only have enough reading teachers to service about half of the kids we are supposed to, because so many children are years behind their reading level, so we need twice the amount we have now, but instead, they got rid of three quarters of the (reading) department.”
Even financially, the decision doesn’t make sense to Demas: “They say they are doing it to cut costs, but most of our salary is paid for by the federal government. We’re Title One employees and 75% of our salary is covered by the federal government…It costs them next to nothing to have us. Kids need us, but yet they take all that money and put it toward legal fees, because they create lawsuits for themselves. They say our scores haven’t improved, but they have tremendously!”
Another teacher who asked not to be identified said that she was really shocked by the board’s announcement because it seemed to contradict the goals the superintendent set last year.
“Last year when the superintendent was new, she had this philosophy of back to basics and one thing that she bragged about was putting two reading teachers and two math teachers in each classroom and now one year later, they are being excessed. I don’t get that. You can’t assess the effectiveness of a program in one year with students who are two and three years behind,” the teacher said, adding, “I’ve been here 18 years and this is the first time that I’ve seen the teachers and the community united. Everybody’s had it.”
Another issue that brought the teachers and community members to the streets was being locked out of the Board of Education meeting on June 19th.
“There was a public meeting announced at the Hempstead High School Board room, so we all went up there. They shut the door. They locked it. They told the security guard that it was a closed meeting, which was not true. It was a public meeting. They did not let us in and at the very end of their meeting, while they were adjourning it; they opened the doors and let the public come in. So we don’t know what they were voting on. We don’t know what was said,” recounted Tammi Mitchell, a Hempstead resident and parent, whose three children went through Hempstead Schools.
A Fios1 news report showing teachers being denied the right to speak at the meeting circulated on the internet and drew the support of other local teachers’ unions.
“We cannot allow any of our teachers to be treated that way,” Tomia Smith, Director of ED-17, New York State United Teachers said at the rally.
“Bellmore-Merrick United Secondary Teachers wants everyone to know that the teachers are not the problem, they are the solution,” Mark Steinberg, President of Bellmore-Merrick United Secondary Teachers said.
Representatives from other teachers’ unions such as Massapequa, Uniondale, Rockville Centre, Freeport, West Hempstead, Port Washington, and Half Hollow Hills also came to show their support.
Community members also stood on the sidewalk together with the Hempstead teachers.
“I am here to support the teachers,” said, Joe Louis Brown, member of the grassroots group, Communities for a Change, “The teachers are the main spring for the children. Without the teachers we don’t have no education. These teachers are going through a whole lot and they shouldn’t be going through what they are going through now. A lot of school teachers are being cut – about 47 or more – it’s a disgrace.”
“I’d like to see a better board,” Brown added.
Also at issue are difficult contract negotiations and lack of details regarding the restructuring of the middle school and high school that is supposed to be ready by September.
“We need to negotiate the restructuring of the middle school and high school for September,” said Mestiza, but “there’s nothing yet substantial that we can say we will move forward, so we want to be sure that we put pressure today. We need to settle in order to change the school system and the school culture for the children’s sake.”
John Romano, a retired Hempstead High School Teacher, came back to support his former colleagues and students:
“The students of the district need all the teachers they can possibly get and they need a lot of help here because they are definitely not getting it from the administration or central office. A lot of these people put in their own time and money and stay afterwards to work with the kids…It just astounds me how poorly treated they are. They should have had a contract. They should have a board that understands this is what they do.”