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Union president: Class sizes will grow in cash-starved Wyandanch

Shirley Baker is sworn in as the new

Shirley Baker is sworn in as the new president of the Wyandanch school board on Tuesday. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Deep staffing cuts in the cash-starved Wyandanch school district will result this fall in many elementary classes of more than 30 students and impede efforts to boost academic performance, a top teacher representative predicted.

Scott O'Brien-Curcie, president of the district's teacher union, told Newsday that elementary class sizes, already large, are certain to grow bigger during the 2019-20 school year as the system reduces staff to deal with a growing budget deficit.

The  district’s board met in open session Tuesday night at 8, an hour after the scheduled starting time, and in split 4-3 votes elected a new president, Shirley Baker, and vice president, Nancy Holliday. The pair defeated an attempt by former president James Crawford and former vice president Yvonne Robinson to win re-election. 

Crawford and Robinson had presided during a tumultuous year of financial setbacks and public uproar.

Wyandanch school administrators have announced layoffs and pay cuts they said will affect more than 100 workers, ranging from assistant principals to bus monitors. The list included 30 teachers who, like other union members, will be laid off starting with those lowest on the seniority list.

O'Brien-Curcie, president of the Wyandanch Teachers Association, confirmed the number of teachers slated to lose their jobs — a number constituting about 14 percent of the system's total instructional workforce of 220.

The union chief, interviewed by phone Monday, added that those facing job losses were mostly in their first or second years of teaching in Wyandanch. Areas affected run the gamut, including elementary instruction, special education, art, music, English and social studies, he said.

"It's across the board — we were decimated," said O'Brien-Curcie, a longtime math teacher. "We were making progress, and this is not going to work. We should be looking to get class sizes down, not up."

In the elementary grades, average class sizes will rise from 27 or 28 students in the school year just ended to about 32 in the coming academic year, the union chief said.

The projected number is far larger than the average 21 or 22 students found in most elementary classrooms across Long Island, according to the state Education Department's 2018 data, the most recent available.

A Wyandanch spokesman, Nathan Jackson, said the district could not project class sizes this fall because it has not decided on student placements.

A prime concern expressed by O'Brien-Curcie and other Wyandanch leaders is that efforts to boost students' test scores, which already are low, will suffer a setback when classes grow larger.

In 2018, the latest year on record, the percentage of Wyandanch students passing the state English Language Arts test given in grades three through eight ranged from 10 percent to 32 percent, depending on grade level. The average range for the Island as a whole was 42.6 percent to 57.1 percent.

On the other hand, a far smaller percentage of Wyandanch students opted out of state tests last year than the average Islandwide, according to state data.

Wyandanch, which is the poorest district in Suffolk County in terms of taxable real estate and income, is operating on a bare-bones contingency budget of $69 million for the 2019-20 school year, which began July 1. The cost-cutting budget was forced on the district by state law after local residents voted down two proposed spending plans that carried tax hikes of 40.9 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

State lawmakers whose constituencies include Wyandanch have called for appointment of a state monitor to track the district's finances. Only in this way, lawmakers said, can the state be sure that its investment in the district, amounting to more than $45 million in annual aid, is well spent.

"The kids are here and we've got to figure out how to fund it, because how we're doing it now isn't going to work," said State Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford).

Bipartisan legislation sponsored by Brooks and other lawmakers would authorize the state education commissioner to name an independent monitor for Wyandanch. The bill was approved by the full legislature during the closing hours of its session June 14.

Brooks, in a phone interview Tuesday, said he expects the State Senate majority leader's office to send the legislation to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for consideration by week's end. From the time the bill is sent to the governor, he has 10 days to approve or veto it.

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