Paraeducator Valerie Puriefoy-Hamlet has worn many hats in her three decades working for Detroit’s public school district.
“I am not only a (paraeducator), I’m a custodian. I’m a noon hour aide. I am the teacher,” Pureifoy-Hamlet, who works at John R. King Academic and Performing Arts Academy, said at a school board meeting Tuesday. “Why? Because when a teacher is out, I’m the one there with the kids.”
So she was upset when she saw her peers in the Detroit Public Schools Community District receive notices that their positions may not be available next fall, and wondered whether even she would stick around for the rest of the year.
“Do I want to stay with DPSCD?” she said. “I just feel like we are not appreciated as people in these positions.”
Some members of the school board said they were also upset about the way the district was handling the dismissal of employees as it draws closer to approving a budget for the 2023-24 school year. They questioned the district’s strategy of rolling out notifications, citing the potential disruption to the school year if staff left the district early. And a few claimed that they hadn’t approved of the notices being sent out.
“We have people that are parting and leaving the district before we even vote” on the budget, said board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo. “We did not approve this. We’re not going to have people to go into these schools, because it’s going to create a domino effect.”
Over 50 district employees, parents and students showed up to Tuesday’s meeting to denounce the district’s proposed budget cuts going into next school year. Those who spoke stressed their worry for their careers and schools if the board moves to eliminate several support staff positions to save money.
“If you get rid of them, my babies will be affected,” said Davonne Abbott, a parent of students at Spain Elementary-Middle School.
“If you all need signatures from the parents, I will go out there and do that. Because I really really do believe that there’s another way,” Abbott said. “We got to find it.”
Paraeducators like Puriefoy-Hamlet are among the school employees facing job losses as the district curtails spending to deal with declining enrollment and the end of federal COVID relief aid. In recent weeks, the district sent out letters notifying paraprofessionals, college transition advisers, and school culture facilitators that their positions could be cut or consolidated.
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Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said that alongside the layoff notices, the district offered buyouts to about 50 school administrators — primarily deans and assistant principals. About 20 of them accepted offers to leave their positions before the end of the school year. Those notices and packages, Vitti added, were only “provided to individuals whose positions in the proposed budget are not funded.”
“I had to start engaging employees and unions about those changes, and that’s what I’ve been doing for several months,” he said.
Vitti said that district officials will go back to the employees who accepted buyouts to see if they’d be willing to stay until the last day of school. But he rebutted the complaints from board members, saying they had largely given him the go-ahead at their Feb. 18 school board retreat to send out notices and buyout packages.
Board members heard from many of the affected employees Tuesday, but the discussion also reflected public concern about how the proposed cuts would affect student achievement.
Lauren Hatten, a student representative and a senior at Cass Technical High School, said she and other high school student leaders were increasingly concerned about how the district would “keep our head above water” as funding dried up.
“Are we pushing for more money from the state government?” Hatten asked Vitti. “Detroit students are unique, and we need unique funding and resources to allow us to be evened out with our suburban peers.”
Henry Ford High School senior Cornell Young credited his college transition adviser with helping him realize college was an option, and encouraging him to research schools and apply for scholarships. He now plans to study mechanical engineering and culinary arts this fall.
“My CTA made me realize that I can do more than work in a warehouse or automotive plant, and I will achieve more than a high school diploma,” Young said. He and a classmate shared a petition signed by Henry Ford seniors supporting their adviser.
“You gave us CTAs to help us. It worked, but now you’re taking it away,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Vitti said the state’s school funding formula “has gotten better” in recent years “but it is still not equal and definitely not equitable.” He said DPSCD students concerned about funding cuts should advocate to Michigan legislators for a more equitable school funding formula.
Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at firstname.lastname@example.org.