Before NYSUT's 41st Representative Assembly got under way, local and retiree council presidents were hard at work, delving into pre-RA workshops on topics ranging from how NYSUT is fighting for public schools across the state to advice on member services and strategies. Here's a snapshot.
Fighting for school funding
Leaders were assured that the union is committed to its legal fight challenging the constitutionality of the state's property tax cap - a law that, when coupled with consecutive years of deep budget cuts, has decimated funding for public schools. "NYSUT will not stop pursuing this lawsuit until there are no further levels to pursue," NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said to a packed room of local leaders.
Delegates were briefed on a handful of schoolfunding legal fights the union is waging. Besides the tax-cap challenge, NYSUT is co-counsel in a lawsuit brought by eight small upstate cities that claim New York's education funding system prohibits their districts from offering students a sound and basic education. The union is also involved in local funding fights in Nassau and Monroe counties.
NYSUT General Counsel Richard Casagrande said that, collectively, the lawsuits raise the public profile of the issue of school funding statewide. Since 2008, more than 35,000 school-related positions have been lost due to drastic cuts in aid and budget constraints at the state and local levels. The union's challenge of the tax cap - which requires a school district to obtain a 60 percent supermajority vote in order to pass a budget increase above 2 percent - is about preserving local control and the rights of parents to provide their children an education, Casagrande said. "This is a very arguable case, and a commonsense case," he told delegates.
Regents agenda reviewed
Local presidents got the latest on three hotbutton issues - the state budget, Common Core curriculum testing and APPR - at a breakout session called "Implementation of the Regents Agenda in this Difficult Fiscal Climate."
Leaders shared ideas for activities to support May's school budget votes and were given personalized data reports showing how their district's state aid breakdown compares to the statewide average 4.7 percent increase.
Even with the increase, state aid for education is still below the 2008-09 aid level, noted Dan Kinley, director of policy and program development. Kinley said it will be crucial for districts and union leaders to get the word out about the expected dramatic drop in grade 3-8 ELA and math scores. NYSUT has been out front raising concerns over the fact that the upcoming tests will be based on the Common Core Learning Standards, even though many teachers have not had the time nor the tools to expose students to the new material.
"SED's curriculum for Common Core won't even be available this summer," Kinley said. NYSUT is calling for this spring's state assessments to be used only to evaluate Common Core implementation - not for any high-stakes decisions for students or teachers.
On APPR, Kinley said many districts and local unions are expected to make adjustments in the local measure portions of their teacher evaluation plans based on their first-year experience.
"We're expecting many people will move away from standardized tests for this portion," he said. "Districts are struggling to meet requirements in this first year. They've learned a lot along the way."
Higher education has been in "one crisis, one turmoil after the other, preventing us from doing the kind of work we feel is necessary," said Ellen Schuler Mauk, who chaired the Higher Education Council meeting.
Adjuncts, she said, are now being hit by the loss of hours and health care insurance through misuse of the Affordable Care Act.
According to the act, companies with more than 50 employees need to provide affordable health insurance for those working at least 30 hours a week, or be penalized $2,000 per employee. At issue is how many hours an adjunct works.
"Credit hours doesn't equal the number of hours worked," said Craig Smith, the AFT director of higher education. When the AFT was asked by the U.S. Treasury to develop criteria to calculate hours, it presented the widely accepted Carnegie Unit, where one hour of classroom time equals another two hours of preparatory time. This method allows many adjuncts to reach 30 hours of work. However, many colleges are cutting adjuncts' hours so they don't have to pay their health insurance.]
The AFT's proposal was rejected by the Treasury; instead, each institution must determine its own method for calculating hours. Some higher education organizations want one hour to equal one hour, he said, because they do not want adjuncts to be granted fewer classes.
"Right now, our best bargaining chip is bargaining," Smith said. Higher education locals need contract language to protect adjuncts.
This week, the AFT expanded its website to provide bargaining resources and a primer on the Affordable Care Act for higher education members.
The AFT is also collecting "bad behavior stories." "We want to build a case record and go back to the U.S. Treasury," Smith said. Too many colleges, he added, are using the health care act to reduce benefits rather than expand them, as was intended.
Promoting political action
NYSUT's legislative staff shared a bounty of tools for local presidents to use while growing their political activism.
First, they showed how NYSUT is growing politically. In 2012, NYSUT made 921,911 calls from the union's polling center; 325,370 robo-calls; and 100,000 calls from NYSUT phone banks. They also sent 600,000 members a voter resource guide which explained positions from both sides of the aisle. NYSUT also participated in 25 labor walks with the state AFL-CIO.
"We upped our game in terms of activism in unprecedented ways," said Melinda Person, NYSUT assistant director of legislation, reporting that 90 percent of candidates endorsed by NYSUT won. "We will never be able to outspend our opponents. We have to outorganize them."
Last year, NYSUT started a Member Action Center and garnered 44,198 new e-activists who sent 216,094 faxes to lawmakers. A new Mac application for the iPhone and Android has been launched.
Local presidents were urged to appoint a Political Action Committee director, and get members to attend in-district Committee of 100 lobby days on their home turf.
Tomia Smith, president of Massapequa Federation of Teachers and a Take Action Long Island activist, urged colleagues to speak face to face with members in faculty lounges about issues, hold events such as bowling outings to attract members with families and host a drawing at each union event.
Protect social safety nets
Retiree leaders were strongly advised to make their voices heard in order to protect the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
During an update on federal retirement legislation, Al Campos, a lobbyist for the National Education Association's Government Relations, Federal Advocacy Department, and Lauren Luchi, manager of AFT retirees, highlighted key threats facing the programs.
"NEA is working in coalition with Americans for Tax Fairness, Social Security Works and the Alliance for Retired Americans to protect these programs," said Campos. The union is also fighting rollbacks to the ACA.
Luchi highlighted the pitfalls of the Chained Consumer Price Index, which would lower retiree Cost-of-Living Adjustments. Retirees aged 65 would lose roughly $6,000 over 15 years. "These cuts would hit seniors hardest in late old age when they are the most economically vulnerable," Luchi said.
SRPs get health care info
School-Related Professionals learned how to navigate the often confusing maze of health care options during a workshop led by Sue Klug, a NYSUT health benefits specialist.
Participants gained an understanding of their current coverage, as well as changes to expect under the 2014 Affordable Care Act, including health exchanges, individual health insurance coverage mandates and employer health coverage responsibilities.
Of special concern was the impact of changes on part-time workers. Employers are not required to offer coverage to members working fewer than 30 hours weekly, Klug said. However, coverage is available through state-operated health care exchanges and safety net programs.
Hilda Monfredo, executive vice president of West Sullivan's SRP unit, also wondered if "districts would be penalized if locals negotiate coverage for part-time workers, but part-time workers refuse it due to existing coverage through a spouse."
Klug advised working closely with NYSUT's labor relations specialists for guidance on specific issues since contracts vary. The union is trying to help as many members obtain coverage as possible, Klug said, "whether through employers or through the health exchange."