When 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.
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
A 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
Other 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.