ITHACA, N.Y.—With school fast approaching, the Ithaca City School District is grappling with a significant staffing issue that has been festering for at least the last year as teachers leave the district in droves for a variety of reasons. 

The situation has forced some teachers to fill unfamiliar roles or abandon their free planning periods during the day, while some substitute teachers and aides have had to step up to plug other gaps in classroom schedules. 

Ithaca Teachers Association President Adam Piasecki said that, by the union’s count, 67 teachers and instructors have voluntarily resigned from the district since July 2021, a fairly astounding figure considering it doesn’t include those who have also departed via retirement or who were terminated by the district because of performance issues. Piasecki said he anticipates the number could continue to climb in the waning weeks of the summer as more teachers find jobs elsewhere. 

At least 20 teachers had voluntarily resigned from the district just in the first few weeks of the 2022 summer, Piasecki said. 

Piasecki said staffing has been a major concern at least since last summer. Ithaca City School District isn’t necessarily unique in the struggle to find and retain teachers — there are similar issues unfolding elsewhere in New York and even nationwide. But, at least looking around the state, Piasecki said, the staffing problems seem to be larger and deeper in ICSD than elsewhere. 

The seat at the head of the classes gets filled, one way or another, but the situation is tenuous.

“We started last school year with more than 20 teacher positions unfilled,” Piasecki said. “It actually was more than that but some of them get buried a little bit because let’s say you need a high school teacher in a department, there’s enough teachers in a department to pick up one course each. […] There was a full-time position, but it got absorbed by these five teachers taking up an extra class, which they can fit into their schedule if they give up their planning time.” 

Email requests for comment, sent to ICSD’s media communications account and Human Resources Director Bob Van Keuren, were not answered. 

It is, of course, unclear if the troubling trends will continue. But if the last two years are an indicator, Piasecki said that the district is essentially losing 10 percent of its teaching workforce to either resignation or retirements each summer and isn’t able to attract enough teachers to stem the losses. Anecdotally, he said, teachers have left ICSD for districts as close as Trumansburg, Lansing and Groton and out to Homer, Horseheads, Odessa-Montour, Owego and more. 

“These are all within the region, meaning many of them are just pulling out of their driveway and going in a different direction,” Piasecki said, arguing that ICSD should not be losing staff to surrounding districts considering its resources. “They’re not actually relocating. That is many of the resignations. […] This is a community issue.”

Through an agreement reached during the 2021–22 school year between the Ithaca Teachers Association and the unions that represent local substitute teachers and education support professionals (ESPs), those who were filling in for full-time teaching positions are able to be compensated as regular full-time teachers would be, despite not having their full teacher certification. That necessary help saved the district from a more dire staffing situation last year, Piasecki said, but the agreement expired at the end of the 2021–22 school year and a new agreement has not yet been reached for a similar arrangement for the upcoming school year. 

There have been at least 27 teaching or instruction jobs posted in the district since February 2022, according to school job listing site OLAS, though that total number may be higher considering some postings may have been taken down once they are filled. Piasecki also notes that though there are 27 teaching jobs still posted, some or most of those have likely been filled in some manner, whether by an outside hire or requesting an existing teacher add it on to their schedule or if a substitute is asked to cover it more permanently—he said it’s possible some of those listings are still up as a result of a clerical oversight. The new school year begins in about three weeks, on Sept. 6.

Credit: Zoe Freer-Hessler

Certain schools in ICSD are facing more dire staffing departures than others. Cayuga Heights Elementary School has lost between 10-15 teachers over the last few months, either through voluntary resignation, retirement or requests to transfer to another school within the district (the exact number is difficult to nail down). While the staffing issues have remained very quiet outside of education circles, they made their way into the public eye briefly last week at the district’s Board of Education meeting, where a Cayuga Heights parent lamented the school’s departures

“If half my staff left, I would know that there’s a problem,” the parent said (her name was difficult to hear and she was speaking virtually). “I’m not here to point fingers, my kids had a great year last year. I think that it might be a sign of something more systemic, not just going on at the school.”

Cayuga Heights principal Lisa Sahasrabudhe referred requests for comment to the district’s central administration. 

One departing teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their new position in a different district, said pay was one of the biggest reasons for their departure. The former teacher said they had taught in Ithaca City School District for several years and had largely enjoyed their interactions with students in the classroom, though that’s certainly not a universal sentiment. 

The teacher said that the salary they started with in ICSD, about $49,000, was actually quite good compared to what they might have found elsewhere. But that was years ago, and their pay had only increased marginally in the time since. They emphasized the lack of a regular salary step scale, putting teachers at a disadvantage in salary negotiations with the district instead of scheduled raises over time. 

“Every single contract negotiation, we’re always at a disadvantage [against] the district, because if we want a sizable raise, say like four percent or four and a half, we generally have to give up something else,” the teacher said. “If you had a step system, you’re guaranteed that raise, and you’re not put at a disadvantage for negotiations.”

Rampant building administration (such as principals, assistant principals, etc.) turnover also factored into the teacher’s departure, since that complicates classroom curricula and doesn’t allow enough time for any grading changes or philosophy tweaks to be implemented properly. If a deputy principal brings in a new or innovative idea, teachers would likely be interested in trying it out — but if that administrator is only around for a year before being promoted to a principal position or placed elsewhere, and a new person with different ideas steps into the deputy principal position, the vicious cycle doesn’t produce much progress. 

The teacher also mentioned inconsistent disciplinary procedures, particularly with classroom attendance policies, and the oft-critiqued number of administrators in the district. It culminates in an environment that he said doesn’t facilitate teacher success or retention — “a perfect storm,” they said. 

“There’s obviously talk about a national teaching shortage, which is true, but I’m a believer that that teacher shortage only impacts districts where people don’t want to work,” they said opined. “Ithaca is a good place where people start their teaching career or their administrative career, and then they move on, I think, because the district does not have systems in place to retain teachers, for teachers to want to stay in the district. […] This teacher shortage seems to be impacting Ithaca more than other districts.”

Not everyone agrees with that rather damning commentary, but Piasecki hopes any remnant of that narrative can be addressed, and soon. As the union president welcoming in new hires, Piasecki said he wants to be sounding an alarm bell, not a death knell. 

New Board of Education president Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell reached out to organize a meeting recently, and Piasecki said they spoke at some length regarding the seriousness of the staffing situation. That’s a new phenomenon, Piasecki said, and gives reason for hope — not to mention that Van Keuren and Piasecki have also had discussions regarding the issue and collecting data that would help fight it. 

“I think that maybe there’s an awakening,” Piasecki said. “Every time there’s a resignation, it’s more work on everybody. From a clerical person, to the tech people, to the principals, to payroll, everybody.” 

From at least one person’s perspective, answering the concerns of ICSD teachers will have a beneficial trickle-down effect on classroom learning and the experience of the 5,000+ students in the district.

“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions,” said the departing teacher. “If teachers don’t feel like they have the power and the ability to teach all their students, and then have the administration support teachers, they can’t do their job effectively.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com