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"Only the teachers could come up with a safe candle," said Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan looking out over a landscape of lighted glow sticks in front of the state Capitol.
Chair of the Assembly education committee, Nolan, D-Queens, was one of several speakers at a NYSUT vigil held on the eve of this year's third Committee of 100 advocacy day. As a cool, spring breeze blew, a lone bagpiper played on the grass surrounded by more than 1,000 educators, and citizen and community groups.
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said the event was staged to "bear witness" to pain felt when students will not be able to take courses they need; when kindergartens become half- day programs; when schools close; when college students cannot get classes they need.
"Kids, schools and communities are sacrificing. The wealthy are not!" Iannuzzi said. "This is a failure of the state to meet its obligation.
"There is revenue available and plenty of time to make a clear statement about some form of progressive income tax."
A giant screen showed slides of newspaper headlines announcing school closings and layoffs - news that hits the headlines every day now In New York. While the state budget has already passed, New York has more income than projected, and the Legislature could extend the millionaire's tax to generate about $5 billion.
"It's a beautiful sight to see how we light up the darkness against ignorance," said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT executive vice president.
"Never give up!" Nolan got the crowd chanting. "The conversation needs to continue." The world is getting more challenging, and teachers are the ones preparing children for a global world, Nolan said.
"You are the people that pave that path. You make that road," she said, noting that most teachers didn't sign up for political activism when they chose teaching as a career, but that is what is necessary now.
"I'm here tonight at the vigil because the cuts to education are too severe," said Sharon Cerio, Oneida County BOCES Teachers Association.
"We're looking for fairness with sacrifice," said Dorie Maciag, a teaching assistant with Oneida County BOCES TA. "We want true sharing."
Art teacher Joanne Casella, Yonkers Federation of Teachers, is now the only art teacher left for 1,000 students in her pre-K to 8 school.
PSC member Anselma Rodriguez said the entire graduate studies and research department at CUNY Brooklyn College where she works is being eliminated. PSC colleague Marcus Richardson said despite record enrollment at the college, 10 percent has to be cut from enrollment management, which handles admissions and financial aid, etc.
Senator Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, pledged he would not give up. He gave examples of sacrifices from students to senior citizens and then asked the crowd why "We're not going to tell a family that has $350,000 they don’t have to sacrifice?"
The millionaires' tax is needed for education, he said.
"The reality is the road to economic prosperity for our state is with an educated work force," said Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, D-Bronx. He noted that while the average family is sacrificing things like a weekend at a state park or a long drive in the car, the sale of luxury items and corporate bonuses are both up.
"We cannot continue to sacrifice our children," he said.
UUP President Phil Smith said the cuts to public higher education at SUNY and CUNY and community colleges are now in the billions. Millionaires become millionaires because of business activities, he said, adding that businesses need a well-educated work force.
SUNY hospitals have also endured major funding cuts, and they provide critical health care to tens of thousands of people who cannot afford it.
When the Alliance for Quality Education warned lawmakers about damage being done to schools, children, and teachers with proposed budget cuts, "we were told our hair was on fire," said AQE director Billy Easton. Now, he said, look at the schools that are closing, and the loss of career and technology programs, modified sports, Advanced Placement classes.
New York is choosing a path to failure, rather than the high road to excellence, said Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State.
"I'm grieving the lost potential that students from kindergarten to graduate school will suffer because of this year's budget cuts and layoffs. It's just not right. I'm grieving the lost jobs that will bring havoc to families and communities across the state. It's just not right," he said.