Hundreds of educators came from around the state - many boarding pre-dawn buses - for an Extraordinary Committee of 100 lobby day to tell their local state lawmakers just how damaging the governor's proposed cuts would be.
They talked about tens of thousands of layoffs, the loss of crucial programs and how important it is to keep education a priority when the economy is in crisis.
Gloversville retiree John Mazur told Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, how his 50-year-old sister-in-law recently was laid off and depending on a "Bridges" program at the local community college.
But at a time when higher education and retraining is needed most, higher education aid is on the chopping block to balance the 2009–10 state budget.
"We don't underestimate the seriousness of this once-in-a-lifetime financial crisis. But we also can't discount the hard truth that the very future of a generation of students teeters on the edge," NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said at the Feb. 3 event.
"Rather than massive cuts that would lead to tens of thousands of layoffs, ballooning class sizes and elimination of critical programs, we must aggressively seek federal aid from Washington and ask the most affluent New Yorkers to pay their fair share of taxes."
Under the governor's proposal, aid to schools would be cut by $2.5 billion, when factoring a $1.9 billion allocation the state is required to pay schools under terms of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.
The proposed $20.7 billion education package - a 12 percent reduction from the amount promised to address the CFE court decision - would hit schools with a double whammy: devastating program cuts on top of unimaginable cuts in school staffing.
"Cuts to education are the wrong choice to help us out of this economic crisis," NYSUT Executive Vice President Alan Lubin said. "In the 1930s, the government spent more to spur the economy. This (administration's solution) is to kill off our workforce. We can't survive this in public education."
As school boards and administrators struggle to craft budget proposals using the governor's figures, layoff projections are growing. Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City schools, told lawmakers more than 15,000 educators would face layoffs.
On Long Island, 3,400 school district positions, as well as 2,900 private-sector jobs at school-supply firms and other businesses, would be on the chopping block. The pain would stretch across the state. Officials in Rochester and Orange County are projecting more than 500 school layoffs. Cuts in Yonkers could reach 600.
Younger, non-tenured teachers are particularly vulnerable. "This would be devastating for me," said Rob Walsh, a third-year teacher and member of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. "I struggled to be a teacher. I always wanted to be able to give back to the community. More importantly, the children would be losing so much."
Also facing layoff, Claudia Campa, an elementary school counselor and member of the Yonkers FT, worries about the effect on students.
"There is a great need for our services," she said, "but because we cannot meet the need, children will suffer."
The state's fiscal dilemma is prompting an extraordinary union response. NYSUT's Legislative Department has been in nearly round-the-clock discussions with lawmakers.
Local leaders and members have sent thousands of faxes from the online NYSUT Action Center.
This month, the statewide union is launching an unprecedented television and radio ad campaign with a message supported by economists and the public: Damaging cuts to our schools, colleges and health care can be avoided by asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share.
Economists estimate restructuring the state's personal income tax policies could generate up to $6 billion in needed revenue. (See story on page 4.)
In numerous meetings with NYSUT activists, several state lawmakers appeared open to the idea of raising the income tax. Assembly Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan said support was building and urged activists to tell their personal stories to their elected representatives about how cuts would hit home.
"I'm totally in favor of (raising) the personal income tax to avoid these cuts," said Sen. Neil Brelin, D-Albany.
NYSUT members urged lawmakers to put the impending federal stimulus to use to restore funds to the state budget. "These cuts will not only be harmful, but they're unnecessary," Lubin said. "The federal stimulus funding we're anticipating will be retroactive, so it makes no sense to cut when help is on the way."
House leaders passed an $819 billion federal stimulus bill in late January, with Senate leaders expected to vote early this month. Congressional leaders hope to have a bill to President Obama by mid-February.
Lubin said the current plan would bring approximately $17 billion to New York over the next two years. "That gets us about halfway to closing the state budget gap," he said.
- Clarisse Butler Banks, Darryl McGrath, Sylvia Saunders