May 2016 Issue - School Finance
May 27, 2016

Local unions make the difference on budget voting day

Author: By Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
May 17, school budget vote thanks
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Since 2014, the Newburgh board of education has been almost completely taken over by candidates endorsed by the Newburgh Teachers Association, due to the hard work of local union members.

"This is our third year of consistently endorsing and really pushing for candidates," said TA President Stacy Moran. Due to a vacancy, four seats on the nine-member board were filled this year, all by union-backed candidates. What does it take to get the nod from the union?

"We want people on the board who are pro-kid, pro-education and pro-public schools," Moran said. Newburgh also passed its budget by a margin of nearly 3–1. There was no shortage of people willing to support the effort.

"We had 213 volunteers over five nights for phone banking," she said. "We had people who had never been here before." NYSUT Regional Political Organizer Mike Grubiak introduced the new phone-bank system that targets supportive voters and helps eliminate wasted calls to out-of-date numbers; the volunteers had fun with it.

"We fed them and we gave out prizes for those who made the most calls," Moran said, noting that these new volunteers will be back.

Districts around the state mounted unprecedented volunteer efforts.

Victor, near Rochester, got involved in school board elections for the first time, recruiting dozens of volunteers for targeted mailings and phone calls. They managed to approve the tax levy override with 60.35 percent of the vote. Without their efforts, it likely would have failed to reach the supermajority.

One Suffolk County district, Shelter Island, succeeded in piercing the cap with a "yes" vote of 60.27 percent. It literally came down to ONE vote. This local did phone banking to a targeted list for the first time and produced the highest turnout in the district's history.

"Our members are organized and active like never before," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "We know that educators know what is best for kids and for our schools and it's not the privatization and overtesting being pushed by the so-called education reform movement."

On May 17, voters across the state approved 666 school budgets and defeated just 10 — a 98.5 percent approval rate, just below last year's record-high passage rate of 98.7 percent.

The amount of activity around school board races leading up to the elections was unprecedented. NYSUT RPOs, in collaboration with field staff, worked with more than 90 locals across the state to run ambitious campaigns. With targeted training, local union activists took advantage of new technologies/tools to assist in identifying voters and getting out the vote in their districts.

More than 1,000 volunteers used the new Virtual Phone Banking system, which allowed callers to better target supportive voters and to capture results in real-time. Union members called from regional offices and also, for the first time, from the comfort of their own homes.

"The results were clear," Pallotta said. "We overrode tax caps. We got an unprecedented number of local, union-endorsed school board candidates elected. Nearly 99 percent of school budgets passed.

"Perhaps, most importantly," he said, "many local unions became engaged in their district school board races for the very first time."

Of the 10 districts that experienced a budget defeat, eight were attempting to pierce their tax levy cap and therefore needed a supermajority (60 percent) for approval.

Twenty-eight districts were successful in their attempt to override their tax levy limit. Districts with a defeated budget may resubmit the same budget or a revised budget to the voters on June 21, or adopt a contingency budget. If a second budget proposal is defeated, the district must adopt a contingency budget, which means the tax levy stays the same as the previous year — a 0 percent cap.

This year, a relatively robust state aid increase helped school districts maintain programs while keeping tax increases to a minimum. Still, the property tax cap undemocratically limits the ability of parents and community members to invest more in their students and public schools. We continue to fight for changes to the tax cap.