A car pulled up to the curb as staff members dressed in red shirts held signs and waved to passers-by at Jeannette Junior High School in Utica on Wednesday morning. The parent wanted to know why teachers were protesting.
Environmental science and biology teacher KrysAnna Pericak stepped up to the window to assure him this wasn’t a protest but a walk-in – a statewide show of solidarity in support of public education.
“It’s not us against the district,” Pericak assured the father. “If you could, contact your state legislators and let them know we need them to fully fund our schools.”
“OK, I’ll do my due diligence,” he replied before driving away.
For the fifth consecutive Wednesday, school employees around the state wore red and held walk-ins pressing lawmakers to value students, respect educators and fund our schools.
In Utica, where staff have gathered outside in the morning and walked in together every week since early May, educators added a twist. Some held signs depicting two eyes, meant to convey the attention they’re paying to the district’s spending plans following recent passage of the district’s first-ever concessionary contract.
Utica teachers are attending the school board’s budget study session on Wednesday evening and planned to gather at a budget hearing on Monday. Members of the Utica Education Association approved a contract with pay cuts and furlough days in February.
“We want the public and the district to know we’re watching the district carefully to see how that money is spent,” said Julie Wright, a 26-year Utica High School Spanish teacher. “The budget they pass now will affect negotiations in the future.”
Special education teacher Anthony Adamo, an 18-year veteran, stood next to Wright on the sidewalk in front of the high school as passing cars honked their support and a crossing guard helped students navigate the busy traffic.
Lagging state funding over the past decade has taken a toll on schools, educators, and students, he said. “The state keeps raising the standards and not giving us the resources to meet those requirements.”
Schools don’t have enough books, technology, or staff, said Michele Santiago, a second-grade teacher at Utica’s Burr Elementary School.
“It’s ridiculous how much we spend on prisons versus our schools,” Santiago said, adding that the same lawmakers who can’t find money to support education “are able to give tax cuts to businesses.”
Teachers have experienced wage erosion of 10 percent over the past several years, as the state has increased school employees’ out-of-pocket costs for health care and retirement, said Liza Parkinson, UEA president.
“Teachers are actively pursuing second jobs to support their families,” said Parkinson, who drives for Uber and Shipt on the weekends.
Meanwhile, she added, six school psychologists and 13 social workers are asked to handle the increasing needs of the district’s 27,000 students, which includes a growing at-risk population.
The stresses and strains of the system, including stagnant and falling pay, are causing fewer people to enter the teaching profession, said KrysAanna Pericak, the 22-year veteran teacher who stepped up to speak with the parent asking questions at the curb.
Pericak said she knows a young man who graduated last year with a special education teaching degree, who took a job at Ford Motor Co. instead of in public education, because the pay was higher. She wants more parents to tune in and speak up.
“My kids are 10 and 7, and it worries me; in five years, 10 years, what’s going to happen to them because nobody is going into this profession?” Pericak said. “What kind of education are they going to get? It’s frustrating.”