BY MEGAN MCGIBNEY
What started off as a rally has turned into a petition for budget amnesty for lower Manhattan’s public schools.
On the steps of Tweed Courthouse Thursday afternoon, Christopher Marte, the City Council candidate for District 1, organized a rally demanding that the Department of Education (DOE) give budget amnesty to the city’s public schools. The event was also attended by political candidates and education activists from lower Manhattan, both in-person and via Zoom.
Originally, the rally was meant to be just that: a rally. But according to Marte’s campaign manager, Caitlin Kelmar, the event attracted so much interest and so many RSVPs, that it was decided to launch a Change.org petition to further the call for budget amnesty.
“We’re here because our schools are facing a budget crisis that nobody is talking about,” Marte said at the start of the rally. “Under-enrollment during a pandemic is not a fair reason to cut funds. DOE needs to relieve stress from the lives of our teachers, principals, parents, and students who are already dealing with so much. We’re calling for amnesty because it’s the DOE’s job to protect high-quality public education.”
With enrollment dropping all over the city, 60 percent of public schools are experiencing a deficit, due to DOE funds being returned after each school found out how much of a student body it had lost this school year. Many schools in School District 2, which covers such neighborhoods as Midtown East, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Clinton, are also seeing a deficit. Marte, and the rest of those who spoke during the rally, said the deficit cannot be when more funds for resources are needed.
“We will not stand for one more cut to our children’s education or their futures,” said Mar Fitzgerald, a co-founder of Families for Real Equity in Education (FREE). “Our schools must emerge from this pandemic financially sound and best positioned to meet the learning needs of our city’s students, particularly our most vulnerable.”
Fitzgerald went on to point out that the returning of funds happens each year for many of the public schools; this year, however, the pandemic has changed the landscape dramatically.
“Don’t you think, just for a minute, that this pandemic has, perhaps, shattered the idea that this is what happens every year?” she said. “Have you forgotten that we are in the midst of a global pandemic? Do you not know that schools have exhausted every cent trying to accommodate this new way of learning? Do you not understand that by taking funds from already severely underfunded, overburdened schools you will kill any chance of teachers and parents helping students catch up and make up for the most disastrous school year in the last century?”
The end of Fitzgerald’s speech was met with chants of “Fund our schools!” from both those at Tweed Courthouse and those on Zoom.
Other speakers also called for amnesty, citing how in 2010, budget amnesty was given to public schools during the economic downturn during the recession. They also called for the need for more funding, including Erik Bottcher, the City Council Candidate for District 3, and Dr. Cheryl Wu, the other co-founder of FREE.
“An entire generation of young people are going a year or more without a proper education or socialization,” said Bottcher. “We won’t know what the full impact of this is yet for years to come. What we do know is, now is the time to allocate additional resources, to help our kids catch up and get back on track.”
“This has been a very difficult year for us,” Wu said in both English and Chinese. “But the parents with children with IEPs, special needs, and the children of D75 (District 75, a citywide program for students with special needs and who are on the autism spectrum), this year has been disastrous. This is a time in our lives where we really need to come together. I can tell you this, DOE, if you’re listening, the money that we spend now will be paid back to us, many times over.”
Once all the speakers spoke, Marte announced the petition, with a goal of getting 100 people to sign it. As of late afternoon Thursday, 12 people have signed.
According to Marte’s campaign manager, Caitlin Kelmar, there is hope that with the petition, the call for budget amnesty will reach a citywide audience.
“This will effect all public schools, with the significant [enrollment] drops,” she told New York County Politics.
This story first appeared on our sister publication newyorkcountypolitics.com.