A full court press of awareness and get-out-the-vote campaigns by NYSUT and its locals made a difference: Voters overwhelmingly showed their support for public education across the state by adopting 96 percent of budgets last month.
NYSUT used statewide television ads, social media campaigns and an unprecedented assistance to local unions to urge voters to support what students need. Many districts reported record voter turnouts.
"This was the first year for school budget votes under the state's property tax cap," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "We had to help our locals explain why, even with the deep cuts to programming and staffing resulting from the cap, voters needed to support their local school budget — to support kids."
Districts and NYSUT worked continually to educate the public that despite this year's $805 million funding increase, three consecutive years of devastating budget cuts by state lawmakers have slashed aid for public education by more than $3 billion.
The Corning-Painted Post district in the Southern Tier is a prime example of what most districts across the state were up against.
Originally faced with a $10 million deficit, the Steuben County district was able to stay within its spending cap only because it received a $5.3 million donation from the Corning Foundation, almost drained its reserves, cut 93.5 jobs, including 38 teachers, and adopted other cost-saving measures such as combining middle school sports.
Without the Corning grant, 50 more teaching jobs would have been cut and high on the list was the district's renowned International Baccalaureate program. "I have taught here 22 years and it was very scary to even think about what our students would lose," said Martha Marks, a business teacher.
The district's $87.6 million budget passed "and we are very happy that we had twice as many yes votes as no," said Corning Teachers Association President Rick Gallant. However, "the bottom line for our students is class sizes will drastically increase at all levels next year," Gallant said, noting that all family and consumer science classes at the high school, as well as the co-op programs, were eliminated.
Besides the high approval rate for those districts that stayed within their tax cap, voters in at least 24 districts agreed to override the cap with a 60 percent supermajority. (See related story.) The official tally: 653 budgets passed; 24 failed.
Like many local unions, the Rockville Centre TA depended on a multi-pronged approach to pass its $97.2 million budget on Long Island. RCTA President Viri Pettersen praised the local's action team, led by Lesli Deninno, and NYSUT's support for developing a campaign that started with registering voters and included ads, leaflets, a "Save Our Schools" pin, and emails to get out the vote.
Canandaigua City School District passed its budget with the largest turnout for any vote since budget votes became law for city school districts. Sixty-five percent of voters approved a $65.5 million spending plan. Several days before the vote, students and teachers showcased the value of education in a local park.
"Many musical groups played, the robotics team gave a demonstration, art students helped children create art on the spot, business students shared their career-related projects — overall a great opportunity for our community to celebrate our schools," said Cheryl Birx, Canandaigua TA president. Informational, budget-related documents were also distributed.
More than 300 people participated in the day's events, said Birx. Red balloons were flying everywhere in the downtown area, she said.
In the coming weeks, NYSUT will monitor those districts that submit budgets for revotes and will analyze votes to see if tax increases caused by state-aid shortfalls — or anger over cuts to programs and staff — were responsible.
NYSUT has joined the Educate NY Now! coalition of parents, administrators, school board members, community groups, and civil rights and education advocates to demand that state government fulfills New York's constitutional obligation.
"We will work with those communities to ensure that Albany meets its obligation to guarantee every child a quality education," Iannuzzi said.