A budget that continues to shortchange students was the catalyst for Danbury teachers to pull on their #RedforEd T-shirts and kick off their spring break at a public hearing.
Last night, dozens of teachers urged city council members to approve the budget as recommended by the Danbury Board of Education, rather than a proposal that would slash education funding in a city that’s already underfunded.
“We have been asking teachers to do the impossible—to go it alone, without the support of their city leaders,” said Danbury Education Association President Erin Daly, who asked the city council to fully fund the Board of Education budget and reject a new proposal from the mayor that cuts funding. Calling the plan “an insult to our community,” Daly said it “ignores the growing needs of our student population.”
Daly expressed her frustration at Danbury schools being shortchanged and noted that teachers’ presence at the city council meeting was “one more passionate plea to let them know how important this is and how cutting the budget is really marginalizing our students.”
The school budget, she said, is “a moral document that reveals not only how much our city values education as a public good but also how we value the children within our diverse community.” (Danbury was named the 11th most ethnically diverse small city in the country, and the second most diverse in Connecticut, in a recent WalletHub ranking.)
High in diversity, low in per-pupil spending
“Diversity is an asset to Danbury, just like it has been for years,” said teacher Tom Young, who recalled growing up in the city with second-generation Italians, Irish, Chinese, and Portuguese as well as those newly arrived from other countries. “I received a great education in Danbury, but the city has slipped to last place in per-pupil spending in all of Connecticut in spite of a growing grand list, low unemployment, a low mill rate, and a strong commercial and industrial base.”
Danbury’s place at the bottom of the list for per-pupil funding, said CEA UniServ Rep Tom Kennedy, has put its schools in crisis. “The ECS funding formula is broken, and Danbury is too. We have some of the best teachers, and they have been tirelessly advocating for resources for their students.”
Teacher Lynne Classey, who set up a mock bake sale table in the city hall lobby in response to a council member’s suggestion that fundraising was a solution, said, “We’re tired of being dead last. Our kids deserve better. We, as teachers, supplement our classroom instruction with materials out of our own pay: books, flexible seating, supplies for projects, and so much more—basically, everything.”
“This issue beats strong in our hearts,” said Danbury High School teacher Nick Fraticelli. “Teachers don’t ask for exorbitant salaries; they ask for our students to be advocated for.”
More supports needed
Rhoda Guider, a fourth-grade teacher at Morris Street School, noted that many of her students lack academic support at home. “This is not because the parents don’t want to help,” she explained. “It’s because they can’t. Two-thirds of the families from my school do not speak English at home, with parents who were not educated in the U.S.” She urged council members to pass a budget that allows for small class sizes, small group instruction, and extra interventions at school so that students can keep up with the demanding curriculum at all levels. “Teachers are working smart, teachers are working hard, and teachers are working with love and dedication so that our students can succeed.”
One community member noted that enrollment in Danbury schools has gone up by 1,000 students over the last decade, with a projected increase of another 700 over the next ten years. “Everyone here has a front-row seat to the damage it will do if we continue to underfund our schools,” he said.
Many in the audience, including teachers, paraprofessionals, and other community members, noted that they work multiple jobs to make ends meet, as do many of the parents whose children attend Danbury schools. “We are not working two or three jobs so that we can be last, so that we can be 169th in the state,” said Danbury High School technology teacher Sterling Miller.
Park School teacher Anne Riddle emphasized the need for increased staffing and improved facilities at several schools, including one with a 1:650 ratio of school psychologists to students. “We have students eligible to receive English language services who aren’t receiving them because there’s no funding. They’re being undereducated, and we don’t want that in Danbury. Tonight is the night for the city council to show its support for Danbury schools and invest in our students.”
Juanita Harris, a school counselor at Danbury High School, said, “We are not living in the same district that we grew up in here in Danbury. I see the needs of my students every day. They are coming to our schools with much more serious social and emotional issues, from anxiety and stress to trauma. We have real issues. My caseload is close to 300 students. We need to fund the budget.”
“Don’t be pennywise and dollar foolish,” Mary Ann Cukierski reminded city councilors, cautioning against a shortsighted approach to education funding. “When people look to buy a home, the first thing they ask about is the education in that community. Help us maintain the system of education here in Danbury.”
A community of supporters
Several community members, many of them with no active ties to Danbury’s public schools, also spoke out in favor of education funding. A retired custodian and school maintenance worker for over 40 years stood before the 19-member council and pointed to the rows of educators behind him, all there on the first evening of their spring vacation. “We have the greatest teachers in the world right here in this city. And to keep our students on track, it takes resources. It takes money.”
Danbury resident Sara Purcell, whose own children are grown, echoed those sentiments. “I’m not a teacher. I’m a taxpayer without a lot of money,” she said, adding that there is no better investment for a community than its young people.
Resident Will Love, added “I implore you to provide what was requested by the Board of Education rather than what was proposed by the mayor. Our teachers go above and beyond, spending their own money to support their students.”
The city council is expected to vote on a budget on May 7.
CEA and DEA have been busy with a #RedforEd campaign in support of fully funding the Board of Education budget, Kennedy said. “We’ve been meeting in person and communicating through a variety of channels, including texting campaigns and posts to social media platforms. We are in this together, and we’re in it for the students.”