ALBANY — Tracy Cimino, who has served as a full-time paraprofessional in Schenectady schools since 2012, was one of around 250 paraprofessionals laid off in the district last week.
Cimino, the parent of a Schenectady High School sophomore, worked in a self-contained special education classroom at Yates Elementary School, providing direct support to special needs students who struggle managing their emotions.
Her experience developing relationships with students and the hard-earned insight of serving young students with disabilities, and that of hundreds of others, will evaporate this year as the district moves forward with reopening some schools after laying off over 400 employees.
“It’s immeasurable what’s lost,” Cimino said. “I fear we will lose a lot of that experience.”
Cimino, who also worked as a building-level union representative for the paras at Yates, said nearly all of her fellow paras at the school were laid off.
“They play almost every role in the district you could imagine,” Cimino said of paras, outlining duties that range from providing careful support to special needs students to monitoring the high school hallways. “You know really what paras are? They’re the people students look to, the people who live in their community, the people they know best.”
The layoffs in Schenectady included at least one paraprofessional with 13 years of experience in the district, institutional experience that could be lost as the laid off district employees look for new jobs. Even if district officials are able to hire back the laid off employees – who will have a hiring preference for a year – many of those employees may have already moved on.
Cimino said the district’s paraprofessionals are as diverse as the city but that many of them are single parents of students in the school and rely on the position to support their families.
“They are living paycheck to paycheck and now four days before school starts you don’t have a job,” she said.
Cimino, along with other Schenectady teachers union leaders, on Thursday joined union leaders from around the state to rally outside the state Capitol to urge quick action to restore funding to school districts.
Schenectady district officials last week laid off over 100 teachers, social workers and counselors and around 230 paraprofessionals. Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, said if you included recently rescinded job offers and other eliminated positions, nearly 150 teacher positions, or about 15 percent of educators in the district, have been slashed from the budget.
“People are in tears,” she said Thursday. “This all happened the Friday before Labor Day.”
Benaquisto said she spent much of the week ironing out the assignments of paras and teachers after the layoffs and budget cuts left many educators in the district without a clear sense of where they would be working or what they would be doing this year.
She said she understood the difficult financial position facing the district but that she was surprised how quickly the district was overtaken by the funding crisis. She said some of the laid off educators were still waiting this week for the formal letter from the district notifying them of their layoff, paperwork needed to start filing for unemployment. When the district had laid off educators in the past, Benaquisto said, they were usually given more notice to prepare for such a major disruption in their lives.
Like Cimino, Benaquisto also lamented the loss of experience among the paras and teachers. The layoffs will likely have an outsized impact on the district’s recent effort to increase staff diversity — newer hires, who are the first ones in line to be laid off, are more diverse than the district’s teacher workforce as a whole. Many of those educators had joined diversity and equity teams and taken leading roles in key district initiatives in recent years, Benaquisto said.
Speakers outside the Capitol highlighted the disproportionate impact the cuts have had so far, landing hardest on the high-need districts in the state that rely most on state aid. Schenectady and Albany both shifted all of their secondary students to all-virtual learning for the school year, citing the reduced state aid as the reason they cannot support in-person instruction.
Standing in front of 500 empty chairs, each representing 20 teachers and school staff laid off in recent weeks around the state, New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta warned that an avalanche of more layoffs is on the way if state and federal lawmakers don’t bolster school budgets.
“We are facing 1,000 layoffs and the potential for 10,000 by the end of the month,” he said listing a handful of districts, including Schenectady, Albany, Norwich and others that have already laid off staff this school year, some just days before they were set to reopen to students.
“It’s an unimaginable loss we will feel the effects of for years to come,” said Laura Franz, president of the Albany Teachers Association.
Capital Region lawmakers who spoke at the event said “all cards are on the table” for funding schools and that the state Legislature should consider revenue raisers like tax increases on the wealthy, mobile sports betting and legal marijuana. Other lawmakers have pushed for taxes on stock transactions or sidelining other projects to shift money to educations.
But it’s not clear what options can garner majorities in the Legislature and win the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo or how long those options would take to reverse the state aid reductions hitting districts now. The prospects for a new stimulus package from Washington D.C., grew dimmer on Thursday after House Democrats rejected a Republican proposal for a scaled back stimulus package.
“Why do we always take it out on the children?” state Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Albany, said at the event.