ITHACA, N.Y.—A nexus point of the Ithaca City School District’s staffing issues has emerged at Cayuga Heights Elementary School, which has hemorrhaged teachers over the last several years to the point that parents have begun sounding the alarm publicly after months of trying to get answers privately.
In conversations with teachers and parents, the words “exodus” and “crisis” are even deployed about CHES, where dozens of teachers have left their classrooms over the last two-plus academic years. Concerns have been murmured for a long time but are reaching a fever pitch, displayed at a recent Board of Education and Parent-Teachers Association meeting.
Projections compiled by parents and verified by the local teacher’s union show that the school is currently on pace to lose eight more teachers to in-district transfers at the end of this year, with five others slated to leave via resignation or retirement. Those 13 departures will make a total of 37 teachers who have left in the last three academic years, meaning the school will have experienced 92 percent turnover of its teacher roster (40 total) since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.
Other schools certainly experience turnover as well, but not nearly to the same extent Cayuga Heights has. During the same three-year time frame, the highest number of teacher departures from another school in the district is 12, from Northeast Elementary School; the highest percentage of turnover in another ICSD school is 27 percent of the teacher roster at Fall Creek Elementary School, compared to Cayuga Heights’ 92 percent.
In the below chart, “transfers” means teachers who requested a change of schools within the district, while resignations and retirements indicate teachers that either left the district or left the profession.
“We thought ‘That’s a lot of people [requesting transfers or retirements] from Cayuga Heights,’ about two years ago,” said Ithaca Teachers Association vice president Kathryn Cernera (Correction: Cernera was initially called the union president in this article). “Then last year, we thought ‘Wow, that’s a large number.’ And this year, we’re anticipating another large number. […] It’s got people pretty concerned.”
Resignations and retirements are a natural part of any workplace, and the teacher shortage and rash of people leaving the profession, seemingly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is a nationwide issue that ICSD is also experiencing. The Ithaca Teachers Association presented on that issue and the district’s crumbling teacher morale in January.
But the fact remains that the numbers displayed from Cayuga Heights are still higher than anywhere else in the district, along with a surprisingly high number of transfers. That number jumped by eight at the end of March, aligning with a deadline for teachers to request a building change for the next academic year. These figures were confirmed by the Ithaca Teachers Association.
“We’re seeing evidence that there is a problem,” Cernera said. “The job of the teacher’s union is to ask those questions, it’s not our job to find those answers. […] If I was in a position to do something, I would be asking what’s going on?”
The ITA has started conducting exit interviews with teachers requesting transfers and retirements from district schools, but only recently. Finding the answers to why teachers are leaving CHES, Cernera said, should be falling on either district or building leadership. The latter, though, has received much of the blame for the teacher departures during the few exit interviews that ITA has been able to conduct with former CHES teachers, Cernera said.
“The turnover is making it difficult for [teachers] to gain traction,” she said of the results of those exit interviews, indicating the turnover problem could now be feeding itself—teachers leaving CHES because so many other teachers have left. “Any time you have an influx of new teachers, whether its new to the school community or the profession, there’s a great deal of informal mentoring that goes into that. […]. I’m hearing that there’s definitely some areas where some of the systems, the daily operations of a school could definitely be enhanced, tightened, revised, to have a more proactive way of thinking, in how [the building leadership] handles things.”
Cernera wouldn’t get much more specific than that, though she noted that new leadership can cause issues with teacher support. In response to a question about when the situation would become a labor issue considering the number of teachers departing the school, Cernera noted that the teacher’s union does not oversee building leadership.
Despite repeated attempts to interview Principal Lisa Sahasrabudhe both via email and in-person, she has either declined comment or the district has not made her available. This Ithaca Voice editor was in the room March 28 at a heavily anticipated Q&A session organized by the CHES Parent Teacher Association meeting, which was nominally supposed to educate parents on the Culturally and Linguistically Responsive (CLR) teaching method administered at the school, though it was dominated by questions from parents about the personnel issues. While the school’s curriculum has been floated as a potential reason for teacher departures—framed as an addition-by-subtraction scenario, with some intimating that the teachers who leave aren’t on-board with the focus on racial justice and equity—that curriculum is loudly and proudly emphasized throughout the district, so that wouldn’t explain disillusioned teachers simply transferring to another ICSD school building.
The only comment from the district on the situation has been an admonishment of this Ithaca Voice editor for attending that meeting. The district claimed the event was private though it was publicly announced, attended by over 50 parents and hosted in the school’s cafeteria. The PTA penned a similar note to its members. After further lack of response to interview requests and declining to speak in-person after the event, a brief list of questions for Sahasrabudhe sent last week to ICSD communications also went unanswered.
Much of the consternation around the situation has swirled around Sahasrabudhe, fairly or not, as she has been the principal of the school since the 2020-2021 school year. During the Q&A at the PTA meeting, Sahasrabudhe insisted she does not know why teachers are leaving because, she said, none have talked to her about it. Even if they had, she claimed she would be limited in sharing their reasons due to personnel privacy, though that explanation did not seem to satisfy the crowd fully.
Sahasrabudhe acknowledged to the group that an “adversarial” relationship had developed between her and some teachers, though she did not delve deeper into that. She also said she had heard that some teachers feared retribution if they spoke up about issues at the school, though Sahasrabudhe emphasized that the teachers shouldn’t feel that way.
The numbers can’t really be misconstrued, though, and they are jarring. Parents pressed Sahasrabudhe on the topic several times, but left without answers from the PTA meeting, though the discussion was cordial and parents did not express any aversion to the values espoused by Sahasrabudhe during the meeting or that are being taught in classrooms. Sahasrabudhe was also credited during the meeting with finally publicly acknowledging the turnover in a recent letter to parents, though they said it took too long.
Six teachers seated throughout the crowd at the PTA meeting all voiced full support for Sahasrabudhe and the curriculum, though they didn’t offer much insight into why the other teachers are leaving either. One said turnover is natural after a new principal takes over a building, but it strains credulity that nearly an entire staff would depart a school without other factors beyond a new name on the principal’s office door—particularly because shake-ups in school leadership are not wholly uncommon in the Ithaca City School District.
For instance, district Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott was Northeast Elementary School’s principal from 2015-2018 before being promoted to her current position; her successor, Liddy Coyle, took over as Northeast principal but was unceremoniously placed on leave and reassigned to a new position last summer. Northeast is now led by Samantha Little as interim principal, though she is also still listed as the district’s director of athletics and wellness. Despite that relative bumpiness, the school has only lost 12 teachers over the last three academic years.
The PTA meeting was largely attended by white parents who seemed to be coming from the surrounding Cayuga Heights neighborhood, a relatively affluent place. It was a point mentioned several times at the meeting, particularly since they only represent part of the families who send their children to CHES. To yield a wider perspective, a solution was posited that a potential second meeting be held somewhere in the West End, where the school also draws a significant portion of its student body and holds a population that is much more racially and economically diverse than Cayuga Heights.
The issue of race has played a role in the situation, but to what extent is unclear. CHES parents have certainly indicated their apprehension to airing out their grievances publicly, not wanting to be seen as desecrating either the progressive curriculum in the school that deals with topics like race and white privilege, or Sahasrabudhe, a successful woman of color whose leadership is often the subject of their ire. But as more teachers leave, they do want to know what’s going on.
Sahasrabudhe isn’t the only one who either doesn’t know or won’t say why teachers are leaving CHES. The district has declined to comment at all, and the teacher’s union doesn’t have many answers either, since an exit interview is not a default inclusion in the transfer process. Contacting teachers who have left has been largely unsuccessful as well.
Members of the Board of Education, when pressed on the issue at last week’s meeting, deferred to school leadership and stated that they don’t oversee personnel and can’t publicly talk about any solutions or future plans because those would deal with personnel, which board members insisted must remain private.
Several parents sat at the front of the Board of Education meeting, spelling out their fears over the school’s trajectory. They included George Tamborelle, the fire chief in Cayuga Heights and perhaps the most vocal of those sounding the alarm over the school’s staffing turbulence. He was first in line for the meeting’s public comment period.
“With your lack of action after repeated emails and knowledge that this is going on, I feel that you’ve broken faith not only with the children and parents, but also with the teachers in this school district,” Tamborelle said. “I feel we are advocating for our teachers and children, but you, the elected members of this board and the administration of this district, can clearly see the turmoil happening in our school and are not taking any action to fix the problem.”
He said he felt like the CHES community was being “abandoned,” with “nowhere to turn.” Tamborelle was followed by seven other parents expressing similar anger, frustration and confusion.
“We are certainly looking into your concerns,” said board member Patricia Wasyliw. “We don’t know everything that’s going on in every building. We’ve been hearing about your concerns very recently. I appreciate all the information, but our powers and our responsibilities are rightfully very limited.”
Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, the board’s president, said that the notion the board had done nothing about the concerns is “disingenuous at best,” positing that “there have been multiple meetings, multiple conversations,” though the comments were quite vague, perhaps due to the aforementioned privacy issues. As was repeatedly asserted by the board at the meeting, it appears none of the work to resolve the issue will be made public until it has already been decided.
Teacher Austin Fay and social worker Alex Scher from Belle Sherman Elementary School, where Sahasrabudhe spent part of her celebrated 30 year teaching career in the district, did come to defend Sahasrabudhe (without naming her, in accordance with meeting rules). They credited her with guiding and starting initiatives that promote diversity and educational equity and serving as a leader of classroom thought development in the district as it tries to move toward the restorative justice model for discipline and an overall “culture of love” often touted by Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown. Sahasrabudhe served as the district’s first Teacher on Special Assignment for Culturally Responsive Practices in 2018.
“As women of color in the equity mentor role here and in other schools prior to my coming to this district, my experience is that there’s often support for the work, but there’s always discomfort, reactive guardedness, and a feeling of being under constant judgment and distrust when you’re leading this kind of work,” Fay said. “It is sometimes very lonely to do it. Despite it being so needed for all of our students and families, often their responses are automatic, and they need support to be revisited and to get reexamined.”
Zach Pegram, who has two children currently at CHES, also spoke at the meeting, articulating the bewilderment of parents both at the teacher departures and at the apparent lack of any answers immediately forthcoming from leadership either of the school or the district.
“Sometimes people are forced, but generally people choose to retire. People choose to work elsewhere and choose to change their career,” Pegram said. “But when many people choose to leave one place of employment, it speaks directly to the place that they are leaving. […] Please figure out what’s going on.”