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‘It’s Devastating’: NYC Schools Face Enormous Budget Cuts

Left Voice publishes an interview with a teacher at New York City’s MS 839, who has been organizing with his school community against the city’s school budget cuts.

Emma Lee

June 20, 2022
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Staff and students protest outside of MS 839 in Brooklyn

Last week, the New York City Council and Mayor Eric Adams approved a record $101 billion budget deal, which cut $215 million from the school budget and increased funding for the NYPD. The council passed the spending plan by a vote of 44 to 6. 

The local chapter of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) at MS 839 in Brooklyn recently wrote an open letter about how the budget cuts will impact their school. I interviewed Frank Marino, an eighth-grade teacher and his chapter’s union delegate, about these budget cuts and how his school community has organized in response.

Go ahead and introduce yourself. Where do you work, what do you teach, and what are your roles at your school?

My name is Frank Marino. I teach at MS 839. I am an eighth-grade humanities teacher. I teach a reading class, and I advise our school’s GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance], which we call Safe Space. I’m also a teacher leader, so I have played a couple of different roles on school leadership teams and instructional leadership teams, and I have been a grade team leader. I’m a member of the UFT and I’m a delegate for our chapter. I’m also a member of MORE, the Movement of Rank and File Educators.

Can you tell me about what’s been going on in your school, but also across the city with the recently-approved city budget?

Our new mayor Eric Adams, in his first budget, has cut funding to schools by around $215 million. That means that individual schools now have had their funding adjusted based on the “Fair Student Funding formula.” Many schools have had shifts in their enrollment due to the pandemic, rising costs in housing in New York City, and inflation — all of which play a role in why people choose to either move out of the city, change schools, or take their students out of public school and put them into charter or private schools. 

Schools are funded based on the number and type of students enrolled, but during the first two years of the pandemic, the city did not penalize schools for enrollment changes. This year, the mayor has taken that away and is now doing  what he’s calling “right-sizing” school budgets. But it’s a cut.

So our school is facing a 7 percent cut, totaling around $500,000. That means our principals are forced to excess [reduce staff at their site due to lack of available positions, requiring excessed teachers to find new positions] at least four, but up to six teachers. We will not have any money for after school sports or arts programs, including our school musicals. We won’t have any money for per-session work on our curriculum. We won’t have any money for teacher leadership positions such as instructional coaches or peer collaborative coaches. We’re a new school; we started in 2015, and we’ve made a great, beautiful school where kids love to come every day. And this cut is really setting us back.

With the Covid funding over the past few years, we were finally getting close to being able to provide kids with the support and opportunities they deserve. We didn’t have to choose between having a musical and having reading intervention; we didn’t have to choose between having teacher coaching or a music teacher. We actually got a glimpse this year of what it looks like to have a school funded well. Because we had this money, we hired enough staff that we could get our class sizes down to 22 or 23 kids. It made a tremendous difference, especially coming off of a year of hybrid learning where we had reduced class sizes. We all got a taste of what it would be like to actually have small classes.

And now the state just passed a law capping New York City class sizes over the next two years. But with this budget cut, how do they expect that to work?

It won’t unless it comes with money. And it needs to come tomorrow. Principals are making decisions about programs and scheduling now. Even if somebody walked into our school on September 5 with a bag of cash in their hand, it won’t bring back those four teachers that we were forced to excess.

 Exactly. It really struck me reading your letter. I’m a first year teacher and I kept thinking about how, if this happened at my school, I would be one of the first on the chopping block after a whole year of developing relationships and putting so much in. It’s infuriating to know that this is happening all around the city.

It’s devastating. It’s absolutely devastating. Our school hired incredible first-year teachers this year who are all people of color, some queer women of color, who built tremendously deep relationships with students and who are now being told that they can’t work here next year because the school doesn’t have the money for them. It’s so demoralizing and dehumanizing to think that you could just pluck somebody up; to think that teachers are just expendable or interchangeable and that you can just shuffle them to a different school. It’s absurd.

Our students planned a walkout when they heard that their teachers were going to be excessed. They were livid.

 Can you tell me more about your students’ walkout and the picket you held as a staff?

We are a very tight-knit, close, community-focused school. So when we found out about the budget cuts last week, we immediately had a chapter meeting that Wednesday, and we just started working on our strategy of how to resist this and wrote that letter. This isn’t the first time that we have had to organize and take action as a chapter against something that was being done to us. And our union never asked us to do any of this. Right? We did it on our own.

That Wednesday, the staff wrote the letter and a press release. First we told the parents and families in our school. On Friday, we told the students, and they were rightfully upset. For a ten-, eleven-, or twelve-year-old to hear that next year they won’t have a musical theatre program, that their volleyball team is going away, that their crew leader (advisor) won’t be there next year — it’s devastating. 

So they planned their own walkout that they did during their second period. The eighth graders are all getting ready for their Regents exams, but the sixth graders took it into their own hands and organized this whole walkout, and they went out and marched around the block a couple of times. It was really great. And the teachers had planned our rally and our picket to happen after school. 

It’s incredible that your students independently planned the walkout. There’s so much power, not only for us as education workers and teachers, but also among our students.

Absolutely. That is the spirit of our school. We teach them lessons about organizing, and activism, and power, and equity, and justice, and making sure that they know how to use their voice. And this was a great presentation of their learning.

There are a lot of connections that I see between your struggles and those of the Minneapolis educators who went on strike earlier this year. They were demanding higher wages for their paraprofessionals and education support staff who are largely immigrants and people of color. I’m hearing that with your school where these new LGBTQ+ teachers of color are the first on the chopping block, too. We saw a lot of student-led organizing happening there, as well.

It is everywhere. Public education is under attack everywhere. And it is horrifying because public education is really the last guaranteed social program. And the capitalist class will do anything they can to chip away at it.  It’s infuriating because the leadership of our union, the UFT, asked us to vote for Eric Adams. They endorsed him. And this is what we are getting. We are getting an austerity budget and they are not stopping here. 

I’m terrified because I know that the cuts this year are going to mean more cuts next year. It is really disappointing that the “most progressive city council that New York City has ever seen” did not put up more of a fight. I know that once you get into government, you have to make calculations and you need to figure out where power lies. But it just shows such a clear lack of organization between the people who claim to be progressive and socialists that are in government — the fact that they allowed themselves to be blindsided by this budget and let the speaker [Adrienne Adams], the chancellor [David Banks], and the mayor set the agenda. They say all these great things, but they don’t put money where we need it. We need the money now. I’m just full of volcanic rage right now.

And look where they did put the money — they just gave $11 billion to the police.

All those councilmembers who made the campaign pledge saying, “I will vote no on any budget that doesn’t include a $1.5 billion transfer reallocation of the NYPD budget” yet still voted for the budget — they went back on their promise. They deserve this outrage. I really appreciate and can see the value in electing progressive people to government, but if you’re not going to show up for the community, you just literally voted with the Republicans.

You articulated it really clearly when you mentioned how the UFT [leadership] went and mobilized the vote for Eric Adams. And it’s these ostensibly progressive politicians and NGOs — those who funneled us all into going to vote for Joe Biden — who have ended up funding the police even more. It just goes to show what happens when you align yourself with a capitalist party.

Exactly. I know that the UFT is not a progressive organization, that it is not a democratic organization. During my time within the UFT, I’ve really seen and experienced so much disempowerment. But the fact that they let this budget pass without organizing, without sending all their paid staffers or organizing the members in schools who are faced with these cuts — They should have been having every single part of their apparatus sending messages to the City Council. I talked to City Council members who said, “I didn’t receive a single letter or call from a parent or a teacher about school cuts before the budget bill.” That is unacceptable. We pay dues every month to the union to watch these things for us. [Our union leadership] is supposed to have our working conditions and our jobs in mind all the time. The budget is a tremendous failure on their part.

It’s very disappointing because I love unions and I love our union. It does so much good for us, but they fucked up so tremendously by failing to organize us to resist this budget ahead of time. The City Council members that voted yes explained their vote and said, “We’re deeply concerned about these budget cuts,” but everything that they’ve said indicates that they do not understand how schools operate — even people who previously were teachers. It just shows me that the UFT did not do their job of defending and representing teachers’ interests because all those City Council people should have known what those cuts mean for our schools.

You mentioned the failure of the UFT to put up a real fight and the lack of democracy within the union. As you know, we’ve been seeing a resurgence of the labor movement recently: 150 Starbucks recently unionized, as well as the first Amazon union. It’s incredible. And it’s also important to recognize that just having a union doesn’t guarantee workers’ democracy.  In your school’s chapter, what does worker democracy look like?

It looks like [our staff] being organized. It looks like having clear, frequent communication that’s transparent and having regular staff meetings, chapter meetings, and community meetings.  I know some chapters where all the communications have to go through the chapter leader, which is just obviously gatekeeping the ability for workers within the union chapter to talk to each other. So we keep it open. I do a lot of work in terms of political education. I’m always posting and sharing and telling people about the budget and what’s going on with other labor unions. We have a really strong collective spirit. The value of collectivism is something that we cultivate, not just within our chapter but in the way that we operate our school. We truly have so much power to make a difference if we were organized and active and mobilized.

I just had one more thing I wanted to ask you about, especially since you said you were one of the advisors of your school’s GSA. Is there anything that you want to say about these recent attacks on trans rights around the country, such as the Don’t Say Gay bill, as well as newer bills coming out that are trying to take away parental rights from the few parents who are actually supporting their trans children?

It’s disgusting. It makes me sick to my stomach knowing that there are children watching this and internalizing this message that their existence is somehow less valuable. I see the impact that it has on my trans students. My trans students that are out have come into their identity and have been tremendously courageous. The impact of just knowing about all of this bullshit that is happening elsewhere, even though it’s not happening here in Brooklyn — their mental health is in the toilet. It is devastating.

At the same time, as a queer person who did not come out until college, who had experienced so much bullying and isolation in middle school, to see so many of my students coming out is such a powerful experience. We recently marched in the Brooklyn Pride Parade and it was so beautiful watching some of these sixth graders in the club who got up their courage to come out to their parents so they could march with us, and then getting all these waves and high fives and then seeing their parents see them — the tears and the pride and everything.

The fact that this can exist simultaneously with the most vile, repressive policies and practices elsewhere is just so disorienting. 

Right. Pride is about resistance. Stonewall was a riot against police brutality. That wasn’t a happy incident, but that is the origin of Pride and that’s the spirit of the movement we need to build.

Totally. Tomorrow we’re taking some of our students from the club to visit Stonewall. It’s all connected — my co-advisor for Safe Space is one of our new teachers being excessed. And it’s just so horrifying and sad because she’s done such an amazing job with them and with that club. And to know that she won’t be here next year — it’s depressing and so cruel.

They make policies, rules, decisions, with all this rhetoric, but it all just obscures the fact that these are people’s lives and communities. It’s infuriating because you can work so hard and you can do such good for your people, and it doesn’t matter because they will just chip it away, swipe the pen and take it away.

What do you want to say to other teachers and folks in the city who are infuriated about these attacks on education?

I think the best way to support us is to replicate these kinds of actions at your school. We need every chapter to be taking school-based actions, whether it’s letter writing, color days, pickets, or anything at all. We can’t rely on the UFT to organize us to do such things — we have to take initiative. We at MS 839 are only facing cuts of 7 percent, and there are some schools in far worse positions than we are. We only took action because we are so well organized, and after these last few years were so challenging, having even one of our beloved staff members excessed is unacceptable. 

The City Council approved this budget with the cuts, so we need to let them know our disappointment and let them know the specific human impacts of such budget cuts. Most of all, we need every New Yorker to let Mayor Adams know that we see through the charade, that we know he is cutting school budgets beyond what is accounted for by enrollment changes. We’ll be rallying at City Hall on Friday, June 24 at 3 p.m. 

Every person who cares about NYC’s children and their futures should let these budget cuts outrage them into action, beyond just this fight. We need to end mayoral control of our schools for good and put management of schools back into the public’s hands.

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Emma Lee

Emma is a special education teacher in New York City.

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