April 2011
March 20, 2011

Activists engaged, enraged over cuts

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: More than 2,000 Westchester-area activists rally at the Riverfront Library in Yonkers. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.

In Syracuse, the turnout at a rally for more education funding was so big it spilled out into the street, shutting down traffic in front of the state office building.

In Albany, a rally at a middle school drew more than 1,200. In Binghamton, activists used a "Beware the Ides of March" theme to warn state lawmakers of the dangers of proposed budget cuts.

With more than a dozen rallies around the state in less than a week, educators, parents, students and community activists created a new kind of "March Madness" and made it loud and clear that the proposals to cut education simply cannot stand.

"Our members are engaged and determined," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "I'm overwhelmed by the tremendous show of force around the state. And the sheer number of people turning out for these events dramatically shows the magnitude of what we're facing."

As NYSUT United went to press, more rallies were to take place throughout the two weeks leading up to the April 1 budget deadline, including a massive rally at the union's Committee of 100 advocacy day. (For updates and coverage go to www.nysut.org's news blog.)

NYSUT launched a second round of television advertising, using student voices to make the case for adequate education funding.

"The pressure is pushing lawmakers and we're making progress — but there's still a lot more work to do," Pallotta said.

On March 15, each house of the Legislature passed its own budget resolution, both calling for partial restoration of the governor's $1.5 billion proposed school aid cut.

The Senate called for $280 million more in school aid and an additional $15 million in grants for New York City, Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo. The Assembly version proposed restoring $200 million.

"It's progress, but these restorations are simply not enough," Pallotta said. "We are facing, conservatively, the loss of 15,000 jobs which will balloon class sizes and eliminate quality programs."

Indeed, the headlines around the state show schools are preparing austere budget proposals with thousands of layoffs, significant program cuts and larger class sizes.

Many districts, like Troy, Schalmont, Syracuse and Midlakes are moving forward with heart-wrenching plans to close at least one school. Other districts are talking about cutting basically anything that isn't mandated: pre-K and kindergarten; music and other arts offerings; foreign language and Advanced Placement courses and sports.

Pallotta noted momentum was shifting in favor of the union's call for the state's wealthiest to pay their fair share.

The Democratic-controlled Assembly proposed a modified millionaires' tax, extending a temporary state tax surcharge on annual income over $1 million. The move came after a majority of Assembly members, led by Education Chairwoman Cathy Nolan, D-Queens, signed a letter urging Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to use the revenue to restore education aid.

Silver, in turn, called the tax surcharge a "priority" for his members and said the Senate should "look at it and take it seriously."

The one-house budget bills contained some bright spots. Both houses rejected the governor's call to shift $200 million in costs to school districts for summer school special education and funding for the schools for the blind and deaf.

In addition, both houses agreed to restore 50 percent of the cuts proposed to community colleges.

The Assembly version restored funding for Teacher Centers and the Senate proposed restoration of 90 percent of the cut to SUNY's teaching hospitals.

Pallotta noted neither house has yet proposed significant restorations for SUNY and CUNY four-year colleges. In addition, it appeared both houses accepted the governor's proposed two-year cap on the growth of K-12 education funding tied to personal income growth.

"We have to keep up the pressure and push on," Pallotta said. Aside from the rallies, NYSUT members need to keep meeting with lawmakers, sending letters and faxes, and working with parent groups on advocacy campaigns.

"Those hometown rallies and homemade signs really put a face on it," Pallotta said.

"When members come out and bring their children, their neighbors and friends, the legislators will listen."