For many parents at Marta Valle High School, Cliftonia Johnson, a school aide, was the first line of defense when their children cut class.
Johnson, 48, has spent two years at the Lower East Side School, where she works as a community associate, taking attendance and communicating with families of students who skip school—a job that sometimes requires calling hundreds of parents on the phone each week.
She was one of close to 700 public school aides laid off today because of city budget cuts.
Speaking this afternoon in front of City Hall at the latest of several rallies that District Council-37 union workers have held this month to denounce the district-wide layoffs, Johnson said her position is invaluable to her school community:
“These high school kids barely come to school. It’s tough to get them to go to school because a lot of them don’t believe they’re worthy of an education, and you need someone who looks like them to tell them they are worthy,” she said.
Johnson, who is black, echoed union criticisms that the layoffs disproportionally targeted people of color, to the detriment of school communities with substantial minority populations. “If you take our [outreach] away, you’re making it worse. ”
“Even though today, at the end of the work day, these members will not have a job, this struggle will continue,” said Santos Crespo, the union representative who has become the primary spokesperson for the layoff fight.
He said the union told the Department of Education during several negotiation meetings that its workers would be willing to take pay cuts, work fewer hours and take more unpaid days off of work to avert the layoffs, but DOE officials were not open to any alternatives.
DOE officials have said that DC-37’s proposals were too little, too late, and Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Thursday morning that today’s layoffs could not be averted. “I’ve tried not to send out mixed signals to DC-37.”
Crespo was joined by several city officials, United Federation of Teachers Secretary Michael Mendel, and U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez who said the layoffs pose an unnecessary burden to city families and schools. The City Council is holding a hearing into the layoffs on Tuesday.
Regina Dudley, a parent coordinator at the High School for Global Citizenship in Brooklyn, cried as she described the challenges her two sons, one of whom has Asperger’s Disease, will face now that she has no steady source of income.
“I have to sit down and explain to my child why he doesn’t get to go to college because I have to pay for that,” She said. “I want to work, not be on welfare.”
Like several other school aides present at the rally, Dudley said her layoff would be a great loss to the school, where she acts as a liaison between administrators and families.
“I honestly feel like my job is not done because a lot of these children rely on us. When I’m on lunch and I see children on the street I want to know why you’re there. I call parents to find out why children don’t come to school. They say we’re not needed in high school, but that’s not true. That’s when children get lost in the system.”