Organizing against school budget cuts: Experiences from 2011-2013

Organizing against school budget cuts: Experiences from my school, 2011-2013

By Kit Wainer

Retiree, former UFT chapter leader, Leon M. Goldstein High School

I was the UFT chapter leader at Leon M. Goldstein High School for 21 years. During most of those years my school faced severe budget crises. Although trying to get the UFT to help restore some funding for LMG was always a substantial part of my job, for a three-year period I attempted to launch an organizing project that would involve members of my chapter and organize parents and fellow union members throughout southern Brooklyn. I can’t say that we succeeded in building any kind of lasting organization. But there were important short term successes in activating chapter members. And during some years the principal claimed that our pressure helped get more funding for the school.

LMGHS suffers from perennial budget crises to a far greater extent than do most schools. It is a stable school with students whose reading levels are above average for New York City. It is a desirable place to work and so it has a low turnover rate. Consequently, LMGHS has an unusually senior staff. Therefore, the average teacher salary there is quite high. In June 2019 it was $94,000, compared to a city-wide average that was below $70,000. Because each teacher is more expensive, the school can hire fewer of them. Furthermore, unlike the vast majority of schools in Brooklyn, LMGHS has never received Title 1 funding. (Title 1 funding is determined by whether or not a school’s percentage of students who receive reduced/free lunch reaches a specific cut-off point. The cut-off is different for each borough and a school like LMGHS that is a few percentage points below it receives nothing).

Since I was first elected chapter leader in 1996 I tried a variety of both traditional and non-traditional ways to combat this. I got my UFT District Representative and the Special Education Vice President to meet with the Superintendent and other officials to make sure there was enough funding so that the principal would not be tempted to cut special education services to pay for general education costs. Soon after Michael Mulgrew became UFT president he held a town hall meeting at Brooklyn Borough Hall at which I spoke, along with some parent leaders and elected officials. I also got my chapter to hold protests before school at which we handed out leaflets to parents as they dropped off their students.

During the 2010-2011 school year the budget cuts at LMGHS seemed to intensify. Possibly it was an after-effect of the 2008-9 financial crisis. Classes were being cut. Students were able to graduate on time but they were not able to take the higher level courses that colleges said they wanted to see on transcripts. Both the students and their parents were increasingly angered. The PA held a breakfast at school for politicians, to whom we introduced a student who had to forfeit an NCAA college scholarship because he wasn’t able to take a sufficient course load because the courses had been cut. State Senator Carl Kruger told him he should be happy to go to any college and that budget cuts were necessary. I shed no tears when that senator ultimately found a new home in the state penitentiary.

In fall 2010 I told the parent representatives at a School Leadership Team meeting that with the current budget it did not seem feasible that the school could continue to cover its expenses through June 2011. Eventually all after school activities would have to be cut, along with paper and toner, and it wasn’t even clear how the school could stay open. The Principal told them that my concerns were valid. They were alarmed. We formed a School Leadership Team subcommittee to address the budget crisis. The instinct of the parents was to bring more elected officials to the school so that we could meet with them. I argued that that was worth a try but that we needed a more public pressure campaign. The parents on the committee had little experience with social activism. But I had built up enough of a rapport with them that they were willing to try.

We held some joint protests outside school. I spoke about this at UFT chapter meetings and was usually able to get more than half my chapter to show up at pickets before school hours. The Parents Association leaders usually participated but had difficulty getting more than 2-3 other parents to join them and I found myself trying to convince the PA leaders to not give up on their own members. Students began to join the protests and the student government helped promote the pickets. The students produced an internet commercial showing the effects of budget cuts on them. And with tacit support from our SLT subcommittee several students organized a walkout in June 2011, in which more than 500 out of 1000 students participated.

At the SLT subcommittee meetings I argued that we should try to form alliances with other schools in southern Brooklyn. The committee agreed that the PA leaders would reach out to other PAs and I would reach out to other UFT chapters. While I still think this was the right thing to try, it proved quite difficult. The PA president said that there was no functioning organization of PAs in the area. She reached out to borough-wide leadership but got little help. I decided to try to engage my chapter in the outreach campaign. Several UFT members participated in a mailing to chapter leaders in the area and 5 or 6 then helped with a phone bank to area chapter leaders. The goal was to get chapter leaders to attend a meeting in which we could plan a joint strategy. But chapter leaders were difficult to reach. Few of our phone calls were returned. One of my members said that when she called another school and asked to leave a message for the chapter leader she was told, “we don’t have one of those here.”

I thought that if I could get the UFT to officially support what our SLT subcommittee was doing it might help us more effectively engage faculty from other schools. That was also difficult though. I would email my district representative to ask if the Brooklyn borough office could help us promote our budget actions but it took a few weeks for the union to respond. Ultimately, the borough office did agree to email UFT chapter leaders in the southern Brooklyn districts and to let us use the UFT logo on our flyers. I think this made it a little bit easier to get a handful of chapter leaders to attend the two organizing meetings we held during the 2010-2011 school year.

We also reached to members of other unions in southern Brooklyn. Several UFT chapter members at our school had friends who were fire fighters. We got encouraging statements but no actual participation in our efforts. We were more successful in getting the support of Transport Workers Union Locals 100 and 101, each of which endorsed one of our marches. Again, we relied on personal contacts between UFT chapter members and members of those locals to make the connections.

Parenthetically, this was the year that MORE was being formed, although the name had not yet been chosen. Representatives from several organizations were meeting regularly and eventually founded the new caucus. There were three or four participants at those organizing meetings, all of whom have since left MORE, who were critical of my approach of trying to involve UFT leadership. They argued that if this project succeded, the UNITY caucus would be able to take credit for it. I argued that it would be very difficult for me to reach other chapters without official union backing. But the division in the group meant that promoting my school’s anti-cuts fight would not be one of the group’s priorities. The tepid response I received nearly led me to not participate any further in what would eventually become MORE.

Our SLT subcommittee organized two actions beyond our school. We held a rally outside the Brooklyn borough president’s office and a march through Coney Island. The UFT officially supported both actions and made some effort to build them, although not to the extent of the union’s ability. I was given time at one Brooklyn high school chapter leaders’ meeting to promote our activities. And the district representatives did send emails to their chapter leaders encouraging them to attend. Beyond that, the organizing fell on those of us at LMGHS. 

Both protest events were only partially successful. Fewer than 100 attended each one. Several members of my chapter participated, as did a handful of students. The PA leaders attended but they were unable to bring out any of their members. Nor were they able to make contact with other PAs in the area, although they did try. A small number of other chapters participated. Members from schools in which union oppositionists participated. A few chapter leaders who were Unity caucus members also brought some of their colleagues.

A major problem we faced was that most schools were not suffering from the kinds of budget crises we faced. Most received Title 1 funding which masked the extent to which the Fair Student Funding formula short changed them. Additionally, schools with younger staffs tended to have lower average salaries and so they faced fewer burdens. Therefore, while other UFT chapter leaders may have sympathized with us, budget cuts was not their issue.

Ultimately, the SLT subcommittee stopped functioning by 2013. LMGHS got minor financial relief from the city, possibly as a result of our protests. We were successful in getting several UFT members involved and we were able to concretize quite clearly the idea that our working conditions were our students’ learning conditions because both were so clearly impacted by the school’s budget.

Today the fact that the budget cuts will likely hit the entire system means that attempting to build alliances between union activists in different schools might be more successful. Similarly, because the governor is projecting across-the-board public sector tightening, it may be easier to form bottom-up alliances with members of other unions. One way to take advantage of this is to find as many concrete chapter projects as possible that UFT members can get involved in around the budget and to try to link up with chapter activists in nearby schools.

When school budgets are cut UFT members see the impacts. Courses and staff are cut. Supplies are not ordered. After school activities shrink and science labs are under equipped and not managed safely. The initial inclination is for schools to plead their own cases to the city, essentially competing against other schools for relief. But soon there may be an audience among members for activities that both address the specific budgetary problems of their schools and which also attempt to build alliances with union members and parents at nearby schools to fight together.

%d bloggers like this: