More than 400 local and retiree council presidents from Long Island to Buffalo participated in a half-dozen pre-RA workshops on topics ranging from higher education to pensions to election strategies.
Budget and evaluation
Local presidents, hungry for the latest information on the state budget and teacher/principal evaluations, packed informational sessions presented jointly by NYSUT's Research and Educational Services and Field Services.
As districts prepare school budgets with only modest state aid restorations, NYSUT's Dan Kinley urged leaders to look carefully at possible sources of revenue:
Find out how your district is using the federal Education Jobs Fund approved last year (about $350 million of $600 million is still untapped and must be used this year).
Find out how your district is using any unreserved fund balance (some districts exceed the allowable 4 percent).
Find out if your district has a surplus in its Employee Benefit Accrued Liability Reserve.
Kinley also explained how a proposed property tax cap would significantly impact schools.
A spirited discussion surrounded the state's new teacher/principal evaluation law that will be phased in starting this fall. Kinley distributed a 114-page advisory report submitted by the Regents Task Force on Teacher and Principal Effectiveness, which included substantial input from classroom teachers.
NYSUT, he said, will press for changes in the final regulations before the Regents take action.
New York's pension funds are "well funded and well managed," said Tom Lee, executive director of the NYS Teachers' Retirement System. The proof is in the portfolio. It shows employer contributions are in the double digits for the first time in 23 years, following three years when employer contributions dipped below 1 percent. Then, the economy collapsed.
But an entity such as the TRS, versus an individual investor, can ride out fluctuations over a long period of time, Lee said.
Using the multiplier effect, state and local pensions generate 2.5 million jobs, $358 billion in national economic impact and $57 billion in tax revenue, said David Keefe, NYSTRS board member. "We spend our money so it generates a lot more money."
"At this time it is absolutely critical that you put out the facts," said Lee.
"In the average school board race, 86 percent of voters stay home. If our members all turn out, we win," said John Costello, assistant to the NYSUT executive vice president.
School boards are the last defense against layoffs, program cuts and other reductions that hurt students, he said.
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are effective ways to mobilize members, share information, invite them to union events and direct them to union communications.
Participants in the seminar on the 2012-20 New York State Higher Education Master Plan were blunt: It's no plan for the future. The Regents-approved plan calls for increased online education; eases the way for out-of-state institutions to operate within the state; and bonds higher education and business.
"It looks as though higher education's function is to serve business — rather than teaching students," said Judith Wishnia, a UUP Stony Brook retiree.
Participants pledged to develop a plan outlining the union's priorities for higher education over the next eight years. "Instead of letting this document drive the discussion, we need to develop a real master plan," said Ellen Schuler Mauk, chair of NYSUT's Higher Education Council.
During a town hall session with Vice President Kathleen Donahue, leaders from 27 SRP locals said more than 810 members may be receiving pink slips. Ann O'Hara, a nurse leader from the Syracuse TA, said 12 of the district's 68 health professionals are facing layoffs, and children will suffer.
"We have resettled refugees and high-poverty kids, some with severe diabetes and allergies," said O'Hara. "Working in school is now like being an ER nurse — without the equipment."
Elma Sprague of the teaching assistants chapter, Guilderland TA, said cuts put everyone at risk. "When nurses are cut, it's a safety issue. When rooms aren't being cleaned, it's a safety issue."
"No matter what, we have to stand up for the right of our children to have good public schools," said Sandie Carner-Shafran, a NYSUT Board member and SRP.
Heather Barmore, NYSUT liaison on federal legislation, outlined Republican federal budget proposals that would replace Medicare with private insurance, and Medicaid changes that would cause many beneficiaries to lose benefits.
Wendy Gellman, a member of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's staff, asked the leaders to help in the fight against cuts in Pell Grants that would cost each college student $845 a year in financial aid.
Ken Drake, president of Retiree Council 8 in the Utica area, spoke about the need to raise revenues to save essential programs through a fair and equitable tax system.
"There's so much wealth in this country — we need tax reform instead of spending cuts," he said.