ITHACA, N.Y. – As the negotiation process for a new teachers’ contract in the Ithaca City School District is set to begin, many students stood alongside teachers last week at a rally calling for higher compensation for teachers in the district.

Students for Democratic Schooling, a student-led organization dedicated to increasing student involvement in school district issues, helped organize the rally Thursday, Dec. 20. About 40 students and 20 teachers gathered outside the Ithaca City School District Board of Education office building for the demonstration. They formed two lines extending from the back of Ithaca High School to the entrance of the Board of Education building.

David Isley leads the teachers’ rally Dec. 20 outside of the Board of Education office building. (J.T. Stone/The Ithaca Voice)
David Isley leads the teachers’ rally Dec. 20 outside of the Board of Education office building. (J.T. Stone/The Ithaca Voice)

David Isley, a German teacher at DeWitt Middle School who led the rally, described the setup as “forming a tunnel of support” to wish the negotiation team for the Ithaca Teachers Association success in negotiating higher wages and benefits in their new contract.

Some teachers wore blue while others brought home-made signs to support the cause. Many teachers agreed that the district’s salary schedule made it difficult to recruit employees. 

“I think the big thing is trying to make our district competitive with other districts,” said William Asklar, an English teacher at Ithaca High School. “It’s hard to hire and retain new staff when you can make twice as much at a nearby district, or $10,000 more, or whatever it might be, and I think it’s starting to affect the quality of the educators in this district because there are people leaving the district to seek out more lucrative options.”

The financial plan for the new teachers’ contract was discussed at the Nov. 13 board of education meeting.

Superintendent Luvelle Brown rebutted allegations that teachers’ pay would be cut under a new contract. Commenting on the November meeting by email, he said, “In that meeting, I (we) were very clear about our intentions with regards to our wishes for compensation packages for all of our bargaining units. The notion that we would not offer pay increases coupled with raising healthcare contributions is not true. To the contrary, we are proposing significant pay increases. We will be sharing more details transparently and publicly in the near future regarding our wishes to fairly and sustainably compensate teachers and all other employees.” 

The Ithaca City School District ranked near the bottom 100 districts in New York in terms of median teacher salaries, with a median teachers’ salary of $53,319, according to SeeThroughNY, a site that acquires data from the state comptroller’s office and is updated at least once a year. Neighboring districts also ranked low on the list, including the Trumansburg CSD, with a median salary of $54,315, Newfield CSD, ($47, 950), and Dryden CSD ($52,663). Lansing CSD, on the other hand, ranked higher with a median salary of $62,389.

Due to Ithaca’s high cost of living, many teachers cannot afford to live in the City of Ithaca and must make daily commutes to work, which is a leading reason some teachers say they want to have higher salaries in their new contract.

“Big picture for people living out of town is that they have to contend with costs associated with their lengthy daily commute (gas and routine maintenance), as well as time away from family. I estimated that if you live in Auburn or Binghamton, which many teachers do, you will end up driving 16,000 to 18,000 miles a school year, and the cost of gas alone would probably be well over $2,000 a year,” said Armin Heurich, a librarian at IHS.

Ithaca students and staff stood in solidarity to support higher wages for teachers. (J.T. Stone/The Ithaca Voice)

Students who attended the rally said their support for the ITA was about more than just compensation.

“My mom was a teacher in Ukraine and she’s actually currently regaining her master’s degree here so that she can get back into teaching elementary school, and I thought this would be a good way to support her cause and who she really is. Also, it’s just a matter of respect to other teachers and people older than us and their problems. That’s really important to me,” said Renat Urazgildiiev, a sophomore at IHS.   

Mira Driskell, a member of Students for Democratic Schooling, said they heard about the rally from a teacher at IHS. They then decided to promote it to the student body by making flyers, using social media and asking clubs at IHS to spread the word.   

Members of Students for Democratic Schooling. From left, Mira Driskell, Anthony Fine, Hannah MacLean, Sophia Patt, Isaiah Gutman, and Ezra Baptist. (Provided by Vaynu Kadiyali)

“I think all of us had this sense that we wanted to help our community somehow, and we knew this was a problem from talking to our teachers in the past,” said Isaiah Gutman, another member of SDS.

Gutman said the two long-term goals of the new organization are to foster a better relationship between teachers and students and to “get a better relationship within students in developing a collective voice.”

Members of SDS also stressed the importance of getting students involved in district issues. Though the student organization did not organize the rally from the beginning, Gutman said they played a central role by encouraging students to attend the rally, as they said no one else was reaching out to students about participating.  

Gutman added that one of SDS’s future initiatives will be to raise awareness for teachers’ aides and non-teacher workers who are paid less than teachers in the district.

J.T. Stone

J.T. Stone is a contributor for The Ithaca Voice and a 2020 graduate of Ithaca High School. Questions? Story tips? Email him at jt22stone@gmail.com.