Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Kathryn Cernera as the presenter for the Ithaca Teachers Association. The actual presenter was Aurora Rojer.
ITHACA, N.Y.—Staffing in the Ithaca City School District has continued to deteriorate since the school year began, as documented in a report compiled by the Ithaca Teachers Association and presented to district officials Tuesday night.
Staffing is not a new concern, but the problem has been exacerbated in recent years for a variety of reasons. Since July 2021, 94 teachers have voluntarily resigned from the district. In August, that number was 67, meaning there have been 27 more since before the school year—including 12 teachers since the report was conducted in October (though data presented later shows that the district is doing a slightly better job filling those positions). The number does not include retirees or people who have moved into administration from teaching.
That was the subject of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Education’s Human Resources Work Committee, held at the district buildings on Lake Street. Union representatives presented a report to Board of Education members and district leaders outlining responses from 151 teachers to a survey conducted by the union about their current morale and feelings about working with ICSD. Exit interviews were also conducted with 14 teachers who departed from the district, detailing some of their reasons for leaving.
Piasecki said they were aware of downward trends in education interest, but union officials insisted that the problem has become uniquely bad in Ithaca. They showed this with data regarding teacher vacancy percentages at nearby school districts, in January 2022 and 11 months later, in December 2022, revealing a noticeable disparity.
Lansing Central School District and Groton Central School District both showed 0 percent teacher vacancies in January 2022, while Dryden Central School District showed 1.5 percent. At the same time, Ithaca had 6.3 percent of its teaching spots open. Fast forward to December 2022, and Groton stayed level at 0, Lansing grew to 1.9 percent and Dryden grew to 3.6 percent. ICSD actually dropped to 4.3 percent, though that was still the highest figure presented, meaning they had some success against the wave of departures—but not enough, the union argued.
“We knew that there would be a teacher shortage in years to come,” Piasecki said, adding that the pandemic also accelerated eligibility for teacher retirements in New York, which didn’t help the problem. “We alone can’t control or make things happen at a national level. Even if we do a lot of advocacy, we know those things move slowly. […] At the same time, we can see and share and discuss what is happening right here at our own local level, in our own school district. It is here at our local level that we can immediately discuss and start working together for the sake of our schools and our students.”
There is, of course, some reason for skepticism, which Piasecki acknowledged. No survey is perfect and the teachers union obviously has a built-in agenda that it is tasked with fighting for. But at least the information would be publicly presented and the district and union could, hopefully, join together for a strategy to improve retention and recruitment.
As indicated by the exit interviews, the most common reasons for leaving seem to be self care and mental health, poor treatment by administration, burn out and lack of support, low pay, student misbehavior and lack of consequences for that misbehavior and frustration with building-level and administration-level leadership.
“Students and teachers in this district are in crisis,” stated one teacher included in the survey. “This district needs to get serious about retaining experienced staff and training new staff. The rewards of teaching can no longer outweigh the incredible cost to our physical and mental health, especially the grossly inadequate salaries.”
Aurora Rojer, another ITA official who delivered the presentation, acknowledged that the sample size of 14 teachers for the exit interviews is somewhat small, but then moved her focus to the feedback from the 151 active ICSD teachers who had answered a recent survey conducted by the union. The survey consisted of three open-ended questions: what brings you joy, what drains you, and what supports do you feel you need?
The answers were vast, but contained a few central themes, including students and coworkers as sources of joy. Overall, though, the primary issues boiled down to a six word phrase: “high needs, big vision, inadequate implementation.”
Another teacher expressed that they had taken a pay cut to come to the district, but were now so far behind on their finances that they may need to pick up a second and third side job. Better pay, a constant demand for ICSD teachers for years even as a new bargaining contract was ratified, rose to the top of the support needs, as well as more investment in staffing to help with teachers aides and education support professionals (ESPs).
ICSD Human Resources Director Bob Van Keuren agreed with Piasecki’s points about the national teacher shortage. Van Keuren was the only member of the district administration to speak, though Board of Education members Moira Lang and Christopher Malcolm both thanked Rojer for her presentation. All district officials and board members were given copies of the report to review for themselves and likely comment at a later date.
Van Keuren did not attempt to respond to the report in earnest, having just received it, though a small prepared presentation insisted that there are “ample adults” in classrooms and that part of the strain on staffing is that the district strives to keep class sizes small. He argued that the district had maintained a high level of services and seemed to indicate that the district’s approach, since it openly tries to be more vocally progressive than other districts, may turn off potential employees.
“At challenging economic times, an easy thing would have been to cut supports, increase class sizes, cut administrators, but our community rallies whenever we ask them to,” Van Keuren said. “We don’t hide who we are. Some people get here, in whatever job, administration, teacher, bus drivers. They think they can be a teacher here like they can be anywhere else. […] Those folks are not going to be allowed to do that here. It’s not just administrators that call it out, it’s their colleagues.”
The report’s conclusions echo parts of the feedback to the question about factors that drain the teachers. It adds credence to a question without an answer yet, which is how the district can actually implement its laudable goals of educational equity and inclusion while still providing enough support to teachers that they don’t feel abandoned.
“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions,” Rojer read. “When teachers are in crisis, students feel the impact. We support the mission and vision but do not currently have the tools to implement them.”