Prior to the start of NYSUT's 42nd Representative Assembly, local and retiree council presidents took part in pre-RA workshops on topics ranging from redesigning teacher evaluations to lobbying to taking on the union's enemies.
Feedback on eval process
After reviewing a series of workgroup draft recommendations on how to improve the teacher evaluation process, Dan Kinley, NYSUT director of policy and program development, urged local leaders to take the suggested solutions back to their membership and get feedback by mid-May.
The recommendations were formulated by an APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) Workgroup created by an RA resolution last year. The workgroup also reviewed results of surveys and focus groups with members and parents. At issue is how to improve the state's teacher evaluation system to support teacher growth and improve student learning.
Recommendations include empowering local unions to negotiate all components of APPR through collective bargaining, limiting the use of state assessments and getting rid of the state growth model.
"The State Education Department's APPR regulations and guidance are overly restrictive, reveal a lack of respect for teachers and disregard the diversity of New York's schools," Kinley said. "But the risks associated with reopening the law need to be weighed against potential gains."
After local leaders and members return feedback forms, draft recommendations will be forwarded to the NYSUT Board for action. Final recommendations will guide NYSUT's pursuit of regulatory and legislative changes.
Praise for higher ed efforts
NYSUT's Higher Education Policy Council praised the hard work of NYSUT and its affiliates at the state and city university systems and community colleges for gains in this year's state budget.
United University Professions at SUNY and the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY turned out in force during budget negotiations, and the results showed.
Several gains paralleled issues NYSUT has championed in its Public Higher Education Quality Initiative, including greater state funding and an increase in the maximum award for the state's Tuition Assistance Program. The Legislature rejected language in the budget that could have opened the door to privatizing SUNY's three teaching hospitals.
"It's very good that so many of these achievements are in accord with NYSUT's goals for our public colleges and universities," said NYSUT Board member Ellen Schuler Mauk, the policy council's outgoing chair.
VOTE-COPE support urged
NYSUT members last year raised $8.8 million for the union's political action fund, which is used to lobby and support legislators who vote to protect NYSUT interests.
Jeff Zuckerman, a former longtime VOTE-COPE coordinator in Tarrytown and retiree services consultant, said far more needs to be raised in order to keep up with powerful corporate and anti-union interests that outspend labor 15 to 1.
Zuckerman, along with Melinda Person, assistant to the NYSUT executive vice president, urged leaders to redouble efforts to increase members' VOTE-COPE donations.
NYSUT relies on VOTE-COPE contributions to buy radio, print and television ads, pay for phone banks and mailers, and make direct contributions to campaign committees.
VOTE-COPE and NYSUT activism, Person said, is "all that stands between New York becoming Wisconsin," where teachers and other public employees have seen collective bargaining rights trampled and their salaries and pensions slashed.
Tax cap fight
NYSUT General Counsel Richard Casagrande told leaders the union's lawsuit challenging New York's tax cap will be reargued in court later this month.
The undemocratic cap impairs local control; expands gross inequities in funding; deprives voters of the right to provide equal or enhanced educational services; and interferes with fundamental voting rights by weighing more heavily the votes of those who oppose lifting the cap.
NYSUT lawyers are also handling cases in which some districts are so underfunded that students cannot receive a sound education.
"The goal of all these cases is not only to try to force courts to give children a sound, basic education, but to provide a forum to show the public the terrible results of funding cuts," said Casagrande.
Learning to mobilize and involve members was the focus of a session for SRP leaders led by Mike Lynch, a NYSUT labor relations specialist from the Vestal regional office.
Leaders compiled "affinity diagrams" to list a component of an effective union local. The exercise showed leaders how to share their views, get feedback and identify important issues.
Getting rank-and-file members involved in union work is essential, said Sirlentor Berry, president of the Hempstead Teaching Assistants. "It makes members feel a part of the union."
Retirees ramp up
Suzy Ballantyne, director of government affairs for the state AFL-CIO, and Richard Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said political opportunities and threats are mounting in the upcoming mid-term elections. It is important to educate and mobilize retirees and get them to the polls, they said.
"Seniors are 13 percent of the population, but represent 20 to 25 percent of the vote," Fiesta said. The numbers underscore why seniors, who have steadily left the Democratic party since 2006, and "near seniors" — those 50 to 64 — are important to preserving programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Ballantyne described the five pillars of effective member contact: worksite discussions, door-to-door informational walks, direct mail, phone banking and social media.
"When we mobilize through these pillars, we find members respond — and you need the repeated contact or people forget," she said.
— RA Reporter Staff