Sachem East students: Teachers required classes to write letters to lawmakers

Sachem High School East on Granny Road in Sachem High School East on Granny Road in Farmingville, N.Y. (Mar. 4, 2013) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Four students at Sachem High School East said some teachers recently required their classes to write letters to Albany lawmakers, pressing for more state financial aid.

State legal rulings bar schools from forcing students to take partisan positions, according to the state Education Department. Teacher union officials said the letter-writing campaign was meant to be voluntary, and a district administrator said Monday that he assumed that was the case.

The Sachem district -- Long Island's second-largest, with 14,300 students -- has told residents it faces fiscal "distress" from a combination of shrinking state aid, rising costs and caps on property taxes. Without more money, Sachem officials said, they either would have to cut services and increase class sizes, or boost taxes more than 16 percent.

Last week, the district's teachers union, with the administration's support, organized a campaign to restore proposed aid cuts that generated thousands of letters.

Sachem's bundled letters were delivered Thursday at the state Capitol by a busload of school supporters. The group included a dozen students and four representatives of the Sachem Central Teachers' Association, the union local.

Students interviewed at Sachem East said teachers gave detailed instructions on points to be covered -- the amount of aid that could be lost and the impact that could have on student clubs, sports and other popular programs.

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One 17-year-old student felt strongly enough about what happened to email Newsday, contending that some teachers had "thrown away any pretense of objectivity or viewpoint neutrality, that as educators they should bring to the classroom."

The senior, who signed the email, said the description of what happened was based on conversations with a dozen classmates and also with siblings who attend the high school.

The senior later asked for anonymity out of concern that the siblings might get into trouble. Newsday verified the student's identity and spoke with the student's father, who supported the teenager's position.

In subsequent interviews, seven other Sachem East students reported mixed experiences. Of those seven ninth- and 10-graders, four said teachers treated the letter-writing as optional, and three others said the letters were required.

"Our English teacher told us it was voluntary, but then in history class, our teacher said it was mandatory," one ninth-grader said.

Jonathan Weston, the union's vice president and an English teacher at Sachem High School North, told Newsday the letters campaign was "always proposed as a voluntary action." Weston likened it to a traditional classroom exercise in which students write essays about what they enjoy at school.

Weston added that the district's superintendent, James Nolan, supported the effort.

"We had kindergarten teachers who had their kids write and draw," Weston said.

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Newsday called Nolan's office and received a return call Monday from Bruce Singer, the district's associate superintendent for business. Singer said he assumed the letter writing was voluntary, but would check with individual schools.

"It's good that students get involved, and that they're inculcated with the fact that we're part of a political system," Singer said. "But I can't imagine that any teachers are coercing students, because they know that's not allowed."

Sachem would lose about $2 million in state aid for the 2013-14 school year under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed budget. The Island's GOP state senators have restored similar cuts in the past and have said they will endeavor to do so again.

Last spring, Sachem voters approved a 4.2 percent tax hike -- above the 2.79 percent allowed by the new state cap. That required a 60 percent majority, which the district obtained by just a handful of votes.

"The taxes going way up can affect my family -- we're not rich," said Kyle Kilkenny, 15, a 10th-grader at Sachem High School North who participated in Thursday's bus trip.

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Kilkenny, who was last year's ninth-grade class president, said he recently wrote the governor on his own accord, asking for restoration of aid.

With Joan Gralla

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