Strategies to surmount challenges facing the union framed a dialogue between NYSUT officers and local and retiree council presidents that opened the annual pre-Representative Assembly leadership conference.
NYSUT's vigorous campaign against the state's testing obsession was a hot topic. "The state is still building the plane while we're flying in the sky," said Paul Pecorale of the Patchogue-Medford Congress of Teachers.
NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said conversations about over-testing are accelerating at the national and state levels. She thanked local presidents for supporting the union's "Tell It Like It Is" campaign, local school board resolutions against high-stakes testing and NYSUT's parent petition. NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue gave a shout-out to retirees, noting grandparents are just as concerned about testing and should sign the petition.
Karen Swift, Saratoga Springs TA, said her school board recently adopted a testing resolution. It was "a very proud moment for me and our teachers for the board to take such a stand."
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi agreed. "It's time for us to get back to what education is about - not an absence of testing, but a common-sense approach," he said.
Sheryl Delano, Rondout Valley FT&SRPs, said the testing push is part of a "much bigger agenda - I liken it to a hostile corporate takeover, using a business model to try to undo public education."
Retiree Judith Wishnia of UUP spoke for many in sharing her outrage over the millions of dollars the state has cut from SUNY and CUNY over the last three years. At SUNY Stony Brook, she said, "we used to be state-supported," but the erosion of funding suggests that "now we are state-located."
Tim Brown, Valley Central TA, spoke of his district's budget woes, recounting the loss of 70 staff members in the last few years and noting that recent state budget increases do not do enough to ameliorate the district's expected $8 million deficit.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta described the union's non-stop pushback on funding and other issues, noting that while the governor and Legislature did more than the "slash and burn" of recent years, it "doesn't mean times are rosy." He said the state must improve funding for CUNY and SUNY and invest in SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
In response to a question about the recently passed "pension smoothing bill," Pallotta said it gives school districts the option of contributing a stable amount every year, smoothing out payments and potentially saving up to $400 million statewide.
TRS rep Paul Farfaglia noted that smoothing "provides a safety valve for districts that protects the stability of the pension system."
Pat Puleo, Yonkers FT, called the option "a blessing" for Yonkers, noting that it could allow the district to recall some of the "sorely needed" teachers who remain on a layoff list.
Following the dialogue, leaders delved into a variety of topics, from fighting for fair school funding to strategies for engaging members, during pre-RA sessions. They also heard from Congressman Tim Bishop, D-Southampton, and John Nichols, a political journalist and blogger for The Nation.
Nichols urged local leaders to fight "zombie ideas" pushed by Washington under the "lie of austerity."
"This is a country with immense resources, with trillions overseas in offshore tax havens," Nichols said.
It all comes down to a drive to transfer wealth from the public sphere to private enterprises, he said.