Laid-Off Educator Makes A Final Request

Christopher Peak PhotoWhen Kevin Staton first flicked on the lights in the Hillhouse High School library, only five worked; the other 25 stayed unlit. The computers malfunctioned. The chairs wobbled. A brown stain in the ceiling stared back at him.

As Staton settled into his job as a library media specialist, repairmen came in with new lightbulbs. A grant funded new computers that he helped install. And he tried to do his part to bring the library into the current century, teaching the students how to sift through all the information that’s currently at their fingertips.

Now Hillhouse’s library is working fine. But Staton is no longer working there.

Staton learned two weeks ago that he was one of the 14 library media specialists whose positions were being eliminated. Eight were reassigned to teaching jobs, but six received lay-off notices.

In total, three-dozen full-time employees received pink slips, in the latest round of cuts that Superintendent Carol Birks has recommended to close a $19.4 million budget deficit.

Some of those employees will return to work, filling any positions left vacant by retirements or resignations. Three classroom teachers, two in English and one in social studies, are already being rehired, after interviewing for the job.

Yet even among those being called back, several of the laid-off employees decried the late notice that has left them scrambling to find a job next year.

Staton, for his part, doesn’t begrudge anyone in the administration. He said he knows that the new superintendent had to make a tough call about whom to keep on the payroll next year. He also knows that in other cities across the country, library media specialists are usually the first ones out in a budget crisis.

But Staton does have one ask. He wants a commitment from the district that the board won’t let the money saved from his position go to waste. He said that teachers constantly have to find workarounds when they don’t have materials for their classes or try to deal with broken equipment. He hopes that any leftover savings go toward providing that support, rather than handing contracts out to consultants.

Like Staton, other teachers interviewed for this article, including several who asked to remain anonymous, didn’t demand their jobs back. Instead, they too asked just that decision-makers keep the students’ best interests in mind.

They said they want the school year to start without a hitch. They want classes to remain small. They said they want their colleagues to stick around, despite all the uncertainty. And they said they want children in New Haven to feel that this city still values their education.

Thinking Of Tradeoffs

Paul Bass PhotoA New Haven native, Staton started working in the classroom 22 years ago as a history teacher. Despite seeing school libraries shuttered in Chicago and Oakland, he decided to become a library media specialist when he arrived at Hillhouse in 2016.

He made the switch because he wanted to have “more of an impact on students.”

Staton felt he could be a bigger help by helping teachers enrich their curriculum and by guiding students to eye-opening information. Overall, he said, he set out to “expose kids to what they wouldn’t normally see.”

“I say, ‘What do you need?’ Just to be a resource,” he said.

Across disciplines, Staton helped other Hillhouse teachers put together units that they didn’t have time to create alone.

For instance, after AP Literature students practiced writing argumentative essays, Staton arranged for the students to try out their newly refined argumentative skills on U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who led a back-and-forth on gun control in the high school auditorium. One student said she left the event confident that she wasn’t “too young” to make a difference.

Staton also assisted in setting up 650 newly ordered Chromebooks. He planned to install software like Edmodo and train teachers on how to use its databases in their lesson plans. After the notice that he’d no longer be in Hillhouse’s library, there’s now only one person in the building who’s in charge of storing and repairing all the hardware, software and electronics, on top of training teachers how to use the laptops in their lessons.

Staton said he became a librarian because he wanted to help students prep for life outside of school, too.

He collected applications for New Haven Free Public Library cards, hand-delivered them to Stetson branch, and then passed out the cards. Those memberships gave students access to a wider selection of books and online resources, including driving safety classes that they needed to get a license and practice exams for the SAT and AP exams.

And he reached out to theaters and galleries, organizing field trips for students to go to the Yale Repertory Theater and the Beinecke Library.

Staton did all that on top of his day-to-day responsibilities, which included teaching students research skills, finding compelling literature to stock the shelves, and collaborating extensively with the instructors for AP Literature, AP U.S. History and African-American History classes.

Staton said that he hopes the libraries don’t sit empty after he’s gone. Now more than ever, students need help wading through all the information they can find online, he argued.

With his position being eliminated, Staton said, he hopes there’s some money left over to fix up the library: Hillhouse’s library needs a hole in the ceiling patched, and it needs sturdy chairs and a working copy machine. He said students notice when things are broken.

Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, said that the district’s staff has filled hundreds of work orders at Hillhouse in recent years, while investing in capital improvements like increased Wi-Fi access, among many other upgrades. He said any maintenance concerns that Staton pointed out will be resolved by the start of the school year.

Staton said he hopes that the district continues to respond to the “immediate problems that teachers and students have to deal with on a regular basis,” rather than hiring top-dollar consultants.

“We always tell the students that we value them, but that’s not always reflected,” he said. “If we’re doing this for the students and teachers, that’s what I hope to see.”

Readying To Return

Christopher Peak PhotoOther teachers who’d been laid off said they just want stability for their kids.

The decision to send out notices in late July has not only sent teachers scrambling to find new jobs, but also derailed preparations that were already underway for the first day of work, as educators are still being shuffled around to their final assignment for next year.

Superintendent Birks and Dave Cicarella, the teacher’s union president, both said it hadn’t been easy to pick out the right time to tell teachers: Send out a notice too early and employees start fretting about whether they’ll be laid off or bumped to a new assignment. Send it too late and teachers, counselors and librarians might have to apply for unemployment insurance.

Cicarella said that the district had faced the possibility of layoffs almost every year since he’d been elected union president, but each time enough teachers left to avoid cuts.

“Could we have done it earlier? It’s a judgement call,” he said. “We’ve tried to be respectful in a bad situation. We didn’t want them to sit around and worry, but we also didn’t wait to tell them when we tell them.”

While several employees said they understood there just wasn’t enough money in next year’s budget, they said they wished they’d been given time to find other work. They said they felt disrespected by the late dismissal, and they predicted that in-demand graduate students won’t try out New Haven if there’s a risk they’ll be stuck in the same situation.

Nearby districts usually err on the side of sending out letters early, giving teachers a heads-up in spring about potential cuts, without formally issuing layoff notices until later.

Cicarella added that the process took longer in New Haven because they wanted to give administrators and teachers choice in where they ended up next year. Unlike some districts that automatically bump teachers based on seniority, the union worked with human resources to conduct a wide-ranging interview process to fit teachers into the right spot.

Birks apologized to any teachers who felt hurt by the mid-summer turmoil.

“I’m sorry that people feel that way, I really do,” she said. “It saddens me that people feel that they were disrespected. I think we were very intentional. We’ve said, since I started, that we’re facing this shortfall. We tried every way to secure jobs, and I have to commend the teachers union for going through everyone’s certification. Generally, districts just place teachers, but we really went through a serious process.”

She added, “I believe in the power and strength of people. I value people and the work they do. It’s unfortunate that we’re here — with the city, the state and others — in the situation we’re in.”

Other educators said they understand why the administration had waited, even though it had left them in a tough spot.

“Unfortunately, lots of teachers don’t submit their resignations until the middle of summer when they get new jobs. So even though it felt like they waited, I know their goal was to avoid unnecessary stress,” said Nicholas Torres, a social-studies teacher at Engineering & Science University Magnet School.

Torres said that he was “obviously not happy” to receive a layoff notice, but he said that the union has given him regular updates since then as positions have opened up.

He added that Birks and Cicarella seemed to be working collaboratively, “not wasting time fighting over a situation that can’t really be changed.” He said that was especially important to make sure that schools are staffed by the time kids arrive.

“Layoffs are terrible, regardless of the profession. But in teaching, they are especially tough because students will end up asking lots of questions, and they often don’t have enough life experience yet to fully understand the purpose of a layoff,” Torres said. “I’m trying to grit my teeth and get through it. I really appreciate that the callbacks have already begun, and I’m optimistic that I’ll be back in the classroom as soon as possible.”

Waiting For More

So far, Birks has closed a little over half of next year’s projected deficit, but it’s unclear what further cuts might come in the next few weeks to make up the remainder.

So far, the district has saved approximately $10.95 million out of the $19.4 million it needs, Darrell Hill, the part-time budget director, told the Finance & Operations Committee on Monday.

Most of that money came from personnel reductions, totaling $6.18 million. Through attrition and layoffs, the district no longer employs 14 administrators, 63 teachers and 6 non-certified support workers.

Closing buildings also saved a big chunk of money, totaling $4.76 million. The closure of Creed eliminated 24 roles, while the consolidation of the alternative high schools and pre-kindergarten programs eliminated another 23 roles.

Those put the school system halfway toward ending the year in the black. Hill said that the district plans to make up another $1.5 million by maximizing grants, $850,000 by slimming down on operational costs like utility bills, $750,000 by reducing instructional costs like supplies and materials, and $500,000 by limiting bus rides and other transportation costs.

If the district can hit those goals throughout the year, it will have saved $14.55 million. That’s still well short of the cuts by about $4.9 million, about the same amount that alders redirected from the mayor’s proposed increase in school spending to public employee medical benefits.

Birks hasn’t said how she plans to make up the rest. She met with leaders from all the employee unions on Monday to brainstorm ideas. She presented the idea of furloughing every employee for two days, which would require a vote by the unions’ membership and would get only halfway there on finding the last batch of dollars.

Cicarella said that the consensus at the meeting was that no single solution could close the gap. He said that any package of savings will include reduced spending at central office. He added that, at the moment, no further layoffs of full-time teachers are being considered.

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posted by: wendy1 on August 10, 2018  7:37am

I really admire this man.  I blame the corrupt and greedy for this city situation.  Firing teachers and closing schools is a horror story.  Getting fired these days is like a death sentence.  Our city kids need small classes, counseling, and as much individual attention as possible.  Many kids also need a refuge and role models they are not getting at home.  A clean and well-equipped facility helps as it shows society cares about them.  .

In 2016 I got a closeup and personal look at our public school system and that is why I readily gave my cash and support to it.  I would happily do it again and would hope other rich pitch in, too.  Old rich people like Rosa DeLauro and Rick Blumenthal and Rick Levin and Bruce Alexander and many others here cling to their money and it is ugly and pathetic.  They cannot escape a crumbling society all around them caused in part by a huge wealth gap.

posted by: observer1 on August 10, 2018  8:21am

I agree with Wendy1, but the taxpayers can not afford to pay and the politicians or Yale will not share their wealth.

posted by: opin1 on August 10, 2018  8:54am

New Haven, supported with state money, spent way too much on building school buildings. A big part of our debt service is for loans taken out to build schools. I’m happy the schools were updated and made state of the art. However, with so many schools all being constructed/renovated over the same 10-15 year period it put a serious debt load on our city, contributing to the budget crisis we have now. They should have built/renovated FEWER schools. This would have left more room in the budget for teachers, student services, learning materials/supplies, maintenance, and people like Mr. Staton.

The construction of the Strong School is the epitome of this problem. That school, which went under construction THIS YEAR, is costing $45 million! That is money that could have been better spent on other things.  Instead we will have another new building. Sure it will be nice.  But in the long run, its just another building that eventually will need maintenance and repairs. On the inside, like all the other schools, we will struggle to fill it with enough teachers and supplies and a proper support system (like Mr. Staton) for its students.

posted by: opin1 on August 10, 2018  9:08am

“He wants a commitment from the district that the board won’t let the money saved from his layoff go to waste.” The money won’t go to waste. It will help cover other more important city expenses like the Mayor’s raise, her trip to China, and her chauffeurs. Jason Bartlett’s raises probably could have covered Mr. Staton’s salary. 

If we’re laying people off (which is understandable) I think we should let go some of the highly paid administrators in Meadow St. They never seem to get mentioned in cost cutting, I suspect because they are all well connected. I do support Birks so far and feel she is doing a good job making tough decisions.

posted by: elmcityale on August 10, 2018  9:33am

“After the layoff notice, there’s now only one person in the building who’s in charge of storing and repairing all the hardware, software and electronics, on top of training teachers how to use the laptops in their lessons.”

Given the long, pathetic history of the school system neglecting upkeep of student computing facilities, this is the impact that most concerns me about the loss of Mr. Staton’s position.  It doesn’t take much advanced analysis to understand the need for better, not worse, support for the technology the students need to be educated about to have a chance for a good job in the modern workforce.  Cut the highly paid, under performing admins at the central office; keep the technology support people in place.

posted by: NHPLEB on August 10, 2018  9:35am

Yes,  Let’s not blame Dr. Birks,  who started in April.  Let’s not even blame Mayor Harp.  They came to a bad situation.  They may or may not be doing the best things but they have to do something.

No big shots at Gateway will get the ax because they have connections to save them.  Watch where they end up,  even if there is some shuffling.  I understand that the administrator union would not take furlough days .  To whack the teachers and support staff alone is cruel and divisive.

Having said that; I’m sorry that many NH students do not have proper role models and support at home but that is not the fault of the taxpayers.  Schools are for education.  It is because we have turned them into 24/7 daycare/psychiatry/socialwork/ food/ babysitting services that we can’t pay for it all.  And why should we pay for what their families are not doing? While there may be some real stories of misfortune,  many of the urban students are the debris of the wrecks their families have made of their own lives.  There’s not enough money to fix what some people have done to themselves and everyone around them.

posted by: AliceB on August 10, 2018  3:12pm

Mr. Staton is , and I say this as a current teacher at Hillhouse, the most valuable faculty member. How on earth anyone who knows anything stood by and let him receive a layoff notice makes me ill. I only hope he will be re-called because we will be diminished without him.
Also, to Will Clark, hundreds of work orders were fulfilled at Hillhouse in technology?  Maybe the NHIi should ask to see these work orders.

posted by: sped123 on August 10, 2018  3:39pm

This young man is a welth of infourmation and help to new havn. It is sad that he has to leave when the ppt chair in my son and daugher building does not do anything ever for many years. The sped teacher set up her ppt meetings and run the meetings while she eats all day long. look at how big she is. if teacher are setting up their ppt meeting the ppt chairs should go and that will save job where people actually do their job, like this gentleman from hill house.  black folk work while non black folk get paid to eat.

posted by: NHPLEB on August 10, 2018  4:11pm

@ sped— your nasty racial remark undermines your whole argument and was not necessary to make your point.  Plenty of Black, White, & Brown folk eat all day in our schools and Gateway while many more Black, White, & Brown folk work.  Save the race card for when you really need to use it.  It is a tired argument and people are not falling for it the way they used to so start to get some facts to make a real case for your ideas or don’t spout off till you have a case to make.

posted by: NHPLEB on August 10, 2018  5:41pm

Staton got moved to Wexler so all the women-folk can stop their wailin’

posted by: robn on August 10, 2018  6:08pm

Wuh-wuh-whoa! Let DO blame Mayor Harp. She inherited a school construction debt that was scheduled to rapidly decline when she took office. She used that opportunity to refi and spend the money on what’s essentially an expansion of an already expansive city government.
As far as the bloated central office…Mayor DeStefano and Supt Reggie Mayo own that one. Once more…dynamite Meadow Street and redistribute the savings to taxpayers and teachers who deserve it.

posted by: Brutus2011 on August 10, 2018  6:48pm

Here is my race card

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-first-white-president-ta-nehisi-coates/537909/

Many folks of color are very sensitive because their lives are affected primarily because of the color of their skin.

If you are tired of it, then just be glad you don’t have to live it.

posted by: AliceB on August 10, 2018  7:29pm

Ilene Tracey and Keisha Hannans have been made Assistant Superintendents at salaries of 165,000.00 each.  I think that pretty much says it all.

posted by: loquacious truth on August 11, 2018  6:47am

How many articles have I read about NHPS trying to recruit more minorities into their ranks? When they successfully recruit minorities to work here they are treated just as bad, if not worse than everyone else. They, like their white colleagues, have had their salaries frozen, been laid off, underpaid, sometimes not paid for working summer school until October, forced to spend ridiculous amounts of their own money on books and supplies, and like everyone else charged with dealing with the social-emotional issues of their students. They also have the unfair burden of NHPS thinking their skin color is some magic wand that just motivates kids to behave and listen, it doesn’t. Minority teachers share the struggle and the kids see it on a daily basis making it harder to convince our best and brightest to come back and enter the profession. If NHPS wants to recruit more minorities they should start by taking care of the ones they have!! How do you think the optics look on this article for your recruitment mission? Instead of spending thousands of dollars sending over paid central office cronies to the south, why don’t you try taking care of the people you have!! How many teachers have been in this district for over 16 years only to watch someone from outside the district come in with 13 years experience from the suburbs and receive a higher salary? That same New Haven teacher is then asked by “double salary administrator “ to mentor New teacher making 10k more then them. Many of these New Haven loyalists teachers are single mothers and fathers and central office doesn’t even have the decency to pay them their proper step. Instead they use the money to recruit inexperienced, out of district people. Take care of the people who take care of you NHPS and you won’t have to recruit. Take care of the buildings you have and you won’t have to build new ones to attrack white suburban kids. And start paying your teachers for the time they have served in New Haven!!

posted by: wendy1 on August 11, 2018  7:03am

There is no justice in this country if you are not white.  I live with shame and guilt every day.  Unlike South Africa, the USA has never acknowledged our apartheid or any of our atrocities.

posted by: observer1 on August 11, 2018  7:32am

The latest cost numbers are in for the trip to China by the mayor, $50,000. Amazing. Think of what that money could have done in New Haven!!!! Toni has to go.

posted by: robn on August 11, 2018  7:45am

BRUTUS,

That’s not a race card. It is, very sadly, mostly the truth.

posted by: AliceB on August 11, 2018  1:01pm

Wendy, you are way off base. Read your history, better than that, read the papers. Who are those in charge in New Haven??

posted by: sped123 on August 11, 2018  2:01pm

@responzesforequality   all desk jobs (like ppt chairz and theme coaches who do nothing, just report special ed. teachers and other teachers to principals and eat ALL day long—-they are HUGE)  regardless of race.  important to know: anyone without a classroom is either the principals pet giving them dirt about the staff who are actually teaching and only eating during during duty free lunch.

posted by: NHPLEB on August 11, 2018  2:10pm

Excuse me “loquacious truth”  but the whole purpose of the minority outreach program is to hire teachers that “look like their students”.  This WAS supposed to magically make the students be nice,  want to learn,  and be successful.  Remember the $30,000 junket to Puerto Rico to hire Hispanic teachers???!!!!  So these are exactly the kind of race games that are played to win minority votes and indebt employees to the bosses.  And then they get the equal treatment by the big shots—— treated like crap!!

Everything else you spoke is 100%  unvarnished truth and I applaud you for speaking.

posted by: loquacious truth on August 11, 2018  2:27pm

NHPS is an equal opportunity employer in regard to the way they mismanage talent. They consistently promote incompetent people on all sides of the racial spectrum. Unfortunately for the students and the teachers those promotions are often political decisions.  Some times those political decisions benefit minority candidates and sometimes they don’t. That being said it’s said the number of good candidates who are consistently passed over for promotion(Black, White, Latino) simply because they refuse to play downtowns political game. Often these candidates understand the problems and are ready and able to provide solutions but are never given the opportunity. Look at the number of teachers and administrators who have left the district in the last five years!! Some really good people who NHPS invested a lot of time and money in only to let outside school systems reap the benefits of New Haven’s investment. Exit interviews would tell you their departures weren’t based on money but lack of support and poor work environment.

posted by: loquacious truth on August 12, 2018  2:02pm

Growing up my teachers were the only highly educated people in my life. They seemed happy, successful, drove decent cars, and didn’t seem to struggle. They weren’t wealthy but were comfortable and seemed to enjoy their chosen professions. For many students in New Haven their teachers may also be the only highly educated people in their lives and if their teachers “look like” the students they serve then perhaps those students might believe education is the answer. But that’s not what our students see. Our NHPS students see people who look like them continuing to struggle. They see poor pay. They hear conversations about the burden of college loans and how education doesn’t translate into a decent salary. They read articles about “teachers failing”. They see articles in the press about their favorite teachers (who look like them) being laid off at a time when the “economy is great”. They watch their class mates, parents, and administrators disrespect teachers and often they shake their heads and say, “I don’t know how you deal with that, I would never be a teacher.
They say things like, “So even with a master degree and 10 years into my profession I’ll still need a second job? No thanks
We try to convince them other wise, we try to explain the value of education but it’s a hard sell!
What should we tell them in September when they ask us about their favorite school counselor? What should we tell them when the library is closed?
What do we tell them when their favorite young teacher has left the profession for financial reasons?
Teaching is no longer a profession which can lift ones family from poverty to middle class. It’s a “privilege” to teach! A privilege most people can’t afford!

posted by: AliceB on August 12, 2018  6:19pm

Dear Loquacious T, your assessment is flawed because teaching has never been a profession one enters for the money.  Teaching is a calling much like the ministry, it has never been about the money.

posted by: Smitty on August 13, 2018  1:23pm

Wendy1 I agree with you wholeheartedly!

Observer1 I can think of a million things our taxes go to that I would rather NOT pay for. I would happily reallocate that and/or pay More taxes if that means students get the best of the best and by the best I mean teachers and staff who not only promote learning but people who have a record of success in helping and keeping their students motivation and performance well above average….You are right tho…YALE nor the Politicians are willing to share their “wealth”....This is a game of the have vs have nots…...

Opin1 As for spending too much on the schools….I have to disagree.  The money we got from the state was badly needed!  I remember when I was in school about 20 years ago, ceilings were leaking and molded, parts of the school were closed off due to leaks…the heat didn’t work (yet we weren’t allowed to wear coats in class) and we sat in the same old warn down or broken chairs our parents sat in…..Things were falling apart at the seams. I am happy that today’s students get to learn in new and/or renovated schools.

AliceB…Some teachers use the excuse that their students are failures because of the neighborhoods the kids come from but then u have teachers who’s students are from the SAME neighborhood SAME school are excelling….The difference; One teacher has no hope so gives less effort…The other one has hope and goes above and beyond because they don’t just teach for a pay check they teach because they are passionate about their students having a bright future.

NONETHELESS Teachers would be GRATEFUL if those of exceptional service were rewarded with higher pay.  Certificates are nice, tears of joy and hugs of appreciation and recognition ceremonies boost endorphins….BUT nothing says “This city appreciates your service” like a significant pay rai$e….We don’t need more supervisory positions or more politicians we need qualified educators who care about and work closely with students.

posted by: opin1 on August 13, 2018  6:43pm

@Smitty,
We partially agree. I also said that I was glad they renovated and/or build new schools. My point was they went too far - they overspent because there were too many buildings (too many schools).  I think they should have spent less on the buildings so they could have spent more money inside the schools on the teachers, supplies, etc.

Since you disagree that we’re spending too much on the school budget, do you mind me asking which of the alternatives you prefer: 1. continue raising taxes by double digits 2. continue borrowing more money to cover the current expenses 3. do you have some other alternative?

Its easy to say “we aren’t spending too much on schools” but if that’s your position - in light of our finances - you should explain how you propose we pay for it. Because the facts are:  We’re getting less money from the state; We just raised taxes double digits; We just went further in debt; and we’re STILL running a significant deficit.