Over 40 New Haven high school students held a rally at City Hall Tuesday to protest teacher layoffs and a lack of educational resources available to them.
The rally, which was organized primarily by Wilbur Cross High School junior Isaiah Lee, began with a march from the East Rock school to City Hall. Students carried signs decrying recent teacher layoffs and chanted “When they say cut back, we say fight back.” Lee and two other students met with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. to discuss their concern that teacher layoffs were not being fairly balanced with cuts to school administrators’ salaries.
Administrators in New Haven Public Schools are among the highest paid city employees. Superintendent Reggie Mayo, who made $226,921 last year, did not take a pay cut this year despite 42 Board of Education layoffs.
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“When these administrators are earning the money that they do, I don’t believe it’s fair for people at the bottom to be laid off,” Lee said.
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Lee said Wilbur Cross principal Peggy Moore told him students who protested downtown would be arrested, adding that flyers he put up inside the high school encouraging students to attend were “ripped down.” Three police officers stood watch over the students as they congregated in front of City Hall, waiting for the mayor to address them.
Lee, the protest’s lead organizer, also said that the flyers he put up inside his school to encourage students to attend the rally were “ripped down.”
In an interview Tuesday night, Lee said members of the Wilbur Cross student government pressured him to call off the rally. Wilbur Cross seniors, it was rumored, would not be able to graduate if they attended.
But Lee said he would not back down to threats or intimidation.
MEETING THE MAYOR
At 5 p.m. Tuesday evening, Lee and two other Wilbur Cross students, Sophie Dillon and Jordan Moye, secured a meeting with DeStefano.
After the hour-long meeting, which was closed to the press, Lee said he was disappointed with DeStefano’s answers to the students’ concerns. Dillon and Moye, however, disagreed, expressing their gratitude that the mayor thought them worthy of his time.
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City spokesman Adam Joseph said the mayor cares about the students’ concerns because he wants them to succeed and stay in New Haven in the future.
“These are our kids,” Joseph said.
Citing his inability to unilaterally change school administrators’ salaries, DeStefano said he directed Lee and his followers to Will Clark, the Board of Education’s Chief Operating Officer.
Higher salaries for administrators are justified, DeStefano said, because of the greater preparation required for their positions and the scope of their responsibilities.
Still, administrators will not be unaffected by the layoffs expected to hit the Board of Education in the next fiscal year, DeStefano said. Layoffs could reach up to 70 in the Board of Education alone, DeStefano said.
He added that the Board of Education was the only department other than Legislative Services that did not see cuts to its budget this year.
Lee made it clear after the meeting that he intends to meet DeStefano again after speaking with Clark and Mayo about his concerns. If no progress is made in those meetings, Lee said, there will be “big problems” for City Hall, including many more protests of the kind on Tuesday.
In the most recent contract, which was approved by the Board of Aldermen in January, school administrators accepted changes to their health benefits that are expected to save the city about $950,000 over the next three years. Combined with pay increases to reward school reform efforts, however, the contract is a net expense for the city of nearly $300,000.
Students from Wilbur Cross, the Educational Center for the Arts, and Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School attended the protest to address poor school equipment and facilities, in addition to the layoffs.
Several students complained about the ages of the textbooks they use in some of their classes. One student, who is currently 14 years old, said herworld history textbook was written in 1992 — she said it had not been updated to include the fall of the Soviet Union. Moye, a junior at Wilbur Cross, said one of his textbooks is so old and tattered that the “wind would tear its pages apart” if he brought it to the rally.
But the complaints were not limited to textbooks.
Isabella Rossi, a Wilbur Cross sophomore, said the burettes she uses in her science classes leak, which makes it difficult to use them for experiments. Ana Ocasio, another sophomore, said she takes a computer class but is often unable to do any work in the class because the computers are slow and infected by computer viruses.
Ocasio said her greatest worry was about layoffs in the teaching staff.
“They’re laying teachers off so they can keep administrators who do nothing,” she said.
She added that she frequently sees students skipping class in the hallways, and that assistant principals who pass by and see them suggest that they return to class without ever strictly enforcing attendance.
Moye said he was unable to take an Advanced Placement Biology course in the past because there is only one teacher at his school who teaches the subject, which he said causes great inflexibility in course scheduling.
Ferny Reyes ’10, who now works for the education nonprofit Teach Our Children, said his organization supplied the students with a drum and loudspeaker for the rally. Reyes, who said he hopes to become a history teacher, said the salaries of school administrators are “obscene.”
A New Haven language arts teacher, who wished to remain anonymous because he is not tenured and fears repercussions, said he attended Lee’s protest because he is worried about the job prospects of the students he is teaching when they graduate.
The school administrators’ contract will be up for renewal in three years.