"What we do matters." "Our kids deserve better!" "Teachers are essential."
Those were among the messages that drew horn honks and waves of support from motorists on Monday evening as more than 250 Berkshire County educators rallied in downtown centers for adequate public school funding.
In Pittsfield, about 200 people wearing masks and shirts emblazoned with the words "fund our future," a Massachusetts Teachers Association campaign slogan, formed a perimeter around Park Square. The rally was organized by Melissa Campbell, president of United Educators of Pittsfield and an eighth-grade math teacher at Herberg Middle School.
Campbell said the demonstration was directed at the state and federal governments, who have more power over the school district's financial future than the city or School Committee. Pittsfield union members say they support the passage of the federal omnibus HEROES Act, which would in part give states more money to fund public education as operations have been disrupted by COVID-19.
A $3 trillion version passed by House legislators included the creation of a $90 billion "state fiscal stabilization fund" for the support of elementary, secondary, post-secondary and early childhood education programs. The bill also includes additional funds for early education and child care, as well as addressing college student loan debt. But the Republican-led Senate has not yet acted.
As teachers are finishing lessons for the school year, planning for summer school and uncertain fall reopening scenarios, they're also facing layoffs. In order to balance budgets drained by the effects of a public health pandemic, more school jobs and education programs are appearing on the chopping block as a cost-savings measure across the commonwealth. Monday marked the last day teachers in their first three years of service could be issued a pink slip if their contracts will not be renewed.
The Pittsfield school district plans to cut 140 positions — a 9 percent reduction of the district's total workforce — with no promise of being rehired to anticipate the worst outcome if state education aid declines. But Superintendent Jason McCandless says he hopes to hire back those workers if the district receives enough state aid.
Nickole Halvorsen is one of many teachers fighting to keep her job. On Monday afternoon, she raised a sign next to the cars rushing by, many of whom honked back their support.
After joining the district in the middle of the year to teach fifth grade at Crosby Elementary School, Halvorsen said she hasn't yet received an offer to return.
"It's scary," she said, adding that she doesn't know what she would do if there's no offer letter for her.
Halvorsen said remote learning was tough on her and her students, and a continuation in the fall would be challenging with fewer educators to support kids.
"It would require at least the same amount of teachers that were in the building now," she said, "not less."
In North Adams, more than 50 educators and public education advocates stood at all corners and at medians around the intersection of Main and Marshall streets making the same arguments. This demonstration was organized by North Adams Teacher Association co-presidents Michelle "Shelly" Darling, a special education teacher at Drury High School, and Lisa Tanner, a fourth-grade math and science teacher at Colegrove Park Elementary School.
"Less teachers means less programs for kids," Darling said, noting that students will need more support than ever, especially if they have to continue remote learning or adjust to split classrooms and schedules and reopening guidelines suggest might happen in the fall.
Colegrove enrolled approximately 311 students this year in pre-kindergarten through Grade 6. According to state data, 72 percent of those students are considered "high needs," with nearly 66 percent facing an economic disadvantage even before the pandemic began.
"To assist our students, we need to be available to them," Tanner said.
In both Berkshire County cities, whose budgets rely more heavily on Chapter 70 state aid than other municipalities, teachers say school and city officials have been supportive and are working with multiple committees to plan for multiple budget and reopening scenarios. But planning is also just guesswork until hard funding is allocated by the state and federal governments.
Tanner and Darling both agreed that the larger emphasis is funding the HEROES Act, which could be channeled to more schools than the state's Student Opportunity Act, which focused on supporting schools with higher concentrations of students with significant needs.
If that bill doesn't pass, Campbell said, it's back on state legislators to find the money and ensure schools receive adequate funding, adding that she has been in contact with state legislators from the region.
"I know that they are advocating for us," she said.
Campbell says she has been working with McCandless and believes he will do what he can.
"I understand why they did it now, because it's harder to do later," she said of the layoffs. "I understand that it's a safety measure for the city and it gives them more flexibility, but we need to fight for the money that our kids need."