Faced with teacher layoffs and larger class sizes, school officials, parents and students took to the streets of Wyandanch Saturday to protest $1.4 billion in statewide cuts in education aid.
"Whose kids? Our kids! Can we save them? Yes, we will!" chanted the demonstrators as they waved posters and marched a mile from Wyandanch Memorial High School to LaFrancis Hardiman Elementary School.
About 50 community residents and others participated in the rally, organized by local activists and the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a regional volunteer group.
Among the Island's school systems, Wyandanch has been hit harder than most by cuts in state assistance. The 1,900-student district stands to lose nearly a million dollars - roughly 2 percent of district revenues - under a tardy state budget approved earlier this month by lawmakers who were under pressure to close a gaping deficit.
As a result, Wyandanch has lost 15 of its 200 teachers. When schools reopen next month, district officials expect average elementary class sizes to jump from an average of 22 students to 27 or 28 students.
Officials contend larger classes will impede efforts to boost scores on state tests - a common theme among the Island's educators. When the state raised passing standards on its tests last month, the number of failed students soared - in Wyandanch and islandwide.
"We need people to recognize the deprivation that occurs in our streets and our education system, especially here in Wyandanch," said Denise Gibbs, an assistant school superintendent who spoke at yesterday's rally.
For Wyandanch and other districts, the best hopes of financial reprieve are contained in a new $26-billion federal spending measure aimed largely at saving teachers' jobs. New York State is due $607 million of that money - equivalent to more than 40 percent of state-aid cuts. But Albany authorities have not yet announced how the money will be distributed to schools.
Meanwhile, Wyandanch officials also warn they may have to cut back further on sports teams. This, in a district that already lacks teams in lacrosse and other sports most districts take for granted.
Javell Johnson, 16, a junior who marched Saturday with fellow members of Wyandanch's varsity football team, worries about the potential impact.
"Most people play sports to keep out of trouble, so if we don't have sports, I guess we'd have more people in trouble," the wide receiver said.
Local activists acknowledge, however, that Wyandanch's financial wounds are partly self-inflicted. When the district drafted its budget last spring, it gambled that it would lose no aid, despite state warnings of potential cuts.
Moreover, past struggles between rival school-board factions regarding patronage hiring have resulted in financial waste. Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) reminded rally participants that Wyandanch had been hurt by "too many people fighting each other."
"So let's all work together," Sweeney said.