September 2010
August 22, 2010

NYSUT members meet tough fiscal challenges

Author: Clarisse Butler Banks
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Broadalbin-Perth science teacher Anita Stabrowski will use the insight gained teaching high school science to better prepare her middle-level students. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

While educators from Buffalo to Babylon and every community in between have grown accustomed to being asked to do more with less, this year promises to be even more daunting. The challenges members face are compounded by an economy struggling to recover, decreased state support, the loss of thousands of colleagues and increased pressure to improve student performance.

NYSUT continues to press at every level for the resources members needs — a message reinforced as we share with policymakers the real world pain cuts impose. In the face of straitened budgets, union members remain determined to do what they do best: delivering excellence every day in education and health care. NYSUT emphasizes through advocacy and outreach that this is a shared responsibility — "and all stakeholders need to step up to ensure the support and services our students and patients deserve," notes NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "Our members continue their commitment despite the often daunting circumstances imposed by cutbacks."

Anita Stabrowski, for example, is a woman on a mission. After a year teaching high school science in Broadalbin-Perth, the National Board Certified Teacher is eager to return to her middle school roots — despite the challenges ahead.

This spring, her district passed its budget after two years of rejected spending plans. For Stabrowksi, it means the loss of one of three middle-level science teams and a science teacher. Now she is responsible for the entire eighth-grade class.

Incorporating hands-on work will be tricky with six sections of 25 students or more per class. "I'm going to really focus on activity skills, measurements and numbers to make sure kids have a lot more confidence in numbers," she said.

For Beth King, president of the Hammondsport Association of Teaching Assistants, one challenge is finding time for one-on-one and small-group work with students.

"More and more duties are being placed on us as support staff. Hall duty, bus duty, cafeteria duty, playground duty … we find ourselves doing more of that kind of work than actually working with the children," said King, whose membership has shrunk from 19 to 11 in the last five years.

The Steuben County district recently incorporated Response to Intervention, a remedial reading program that requires a great deal of staff time, continuous monitoring of student activities and documented progress.

Until this year, Hammondsport assistants could use a separate room to work with students. A dwindling student population, coupled with cuts in state support, means all students will share one building, King said. Now, one-on-one instruction will take place in the classroom with the teacher and other students. King said the assistants will make their new arrangements work, because success "is the only option."

Although Syracuse schools grew by 500 students, more than 240 positions have been eliminated. With fewer adults in the buildings, nurses like Cathy Byrne must get to know the new students — and their medical needs — as quickly as possible.

Each year the list of children with special needs and medical conditions, including diabetes, asthma and food and nut allergies, grows.

Teaching students how to stay healthy is a big part of Byrne's job.

Another is record-keeping. Students routinely start the year with- out up-to-date immunization re- cords, so Byrne, with the help of a district health attendant, spends hours "chasing the shots."

She keeps the lines of communication open with parents through letters, phone calls and the parent tour and orientation. "The first few weeks are especially difficult because we have to track every incoming sixth-grader." Starting at age 11, they are required to have the Tdap (whooping cough) immunization," Byrne said. Children without the shot cannot attend school. Byrne's goal is to keep kids in class learning, and it's tough to tell them they can't come to school, albeit temporarily.

Kyla Relaford, a member of the United University Professions chapter at SUNY Plattsburgh, knows the pain of turning students away all too well.

The college stopped accepting transfer students into its Educational Opportunity Program two years ago, and has only 43 seats for freshman EOP students this fall out of 2,000 applications.

The trend is common through- out SUNY: Low-income students can no longer count on a slot in EOP, which provides special funding and mentoring for students who might otherwise never have applied to college.

"It's particularly disheartening to see our numbers go down," especially in light of the program's strong graduation and retention rates, said Relaford, Plattsburgh EOP's associate director.

Ogdensburg's Gina Platt under- stands Relford's frustration. When officials in the St. Lawrence County school district chose to cut the number of librarians needed to handle the district's six collections, Platt voiced concerns about the effect on student learning.

"How can a district embrace a literacy program and then cut its library in half?" asked Platt, who retired in August after 33 years.

"It's a very bittersweet experience. I'm attached to my library and my kids," she said. But she knows her departure creates an opportunity for a colleague. At least one of the laid-off librarians will now be called back.

NYSUT, in concert with our local unions, continues its leadership at both the state and federal level to remedy the burdens caused by strained budgets. That includes the successful union-led push for more federal aid to preserve education jobs, and forceful advocacy for necessary state resources.

Members also are involved at every level: by writing action letters, participating in grass-roots advocacy, supporting candidates aligned with the union's principles, and working to secure passage of school budgets — supported by NYSUT communications campaigns — to sustain resources.