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Thomas Basel of the Association of Poland Teachers traveled several hours by bus for his first-ever grassroots volunteer lobbying day with NYSUT. If the governor's proposed budget cuts hold fast, he said, students would lose the school's College Now program, where they can earn dual high school and college credits. They would also lose electives, and in some cases, class size will go up by a third.
"If things don't change it will be grim," nodded his mentor for the day, English teacher Sharon Collins from the neighboring West Canada Valley Teachers Association, a sister small, rural local.
Collins and Basel joined a cadre of nearly 300 educators from across the state at NYSUT's Extraordinary Committee of 100 Advocacy Day. With public education - pre-K through post-grad - facing the worst budget proposal in a generation, union leaders have been ramping up the statewide union's advocacy. From postcards to emails, and visits to lawmakers' offices back in their districts and in Albany, educators are spreading the message that $1.5 billion in cuts to education would be the wrong way to deal with the state's deficit.
"We can't balance this budget just through cuts," NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said [Read complete testimony]. "There has to be revenue as well. Lawmakers need to know that this budget proposal is horrendous."
Armed with erasers bearing the "Don't Erase our Progress" slogan and donning blue graduation caps (the right kind of cap), educators took their messages directly to lawmakers.
Mary Emm, a fifth-grade teacher from Chenango Forks, outside of Binghamton, said more cuts would devastate her suburban district. "We've been cutting for the last several years and there is nothing left to cut." Emm already has 25 students, including five special needs students with Individualized Education Programs, in her classroom. Just four years ago, her fifth-grade class was 19. Under Cuomo's proposed budget, the district may lose up to 30 positions along with electives and the advanced placement program at the high school.
In meeting after meeting, her concerns were echoed by other educators facing similar disastrous decisions.
"What kind of a quality education can we provide to students with overcrowding and reduced services - it's a step back in time," said Thomas Snyder, a member of the Chenango Valley TA. "This will cost us more in the long run."
Patrick McCarthy and Laurie Silver, a pair of education proponents from the Sullivan County BOCES TA, bemoaned the loss of current programs and positions. Already, the BOCES eliminated its teen parenting program that got teens to stay in school, get an education, and learn parenting skills. Further budget cuts would only lead to more devastation.
Throughout the day, NYSUT members found strong support among lawmakers for the statewide union's solutions to the state's budget crisis.
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, an Ithaca Democrat and a longtime supporter of the State University of New York, told NYSUT members that she shares their opposition to an ill-conceived property tax cap.
"The problem with talking about this is that it's taking the discussion about personal income tax reform off the table," Lifton said, adding her support for an indefinite extension of the temporary income tax surcharges on the wealthiest New Yorkers.
Educators spoke passionately about the toll that budget cuts have taken not only on services, but also on the school buildings themselves.
"Right now, outside one of my classroom doors is a huge leak dripping into a large garbage bucket," said Debra Kardas of the Poughkeepsie Public Schools Teachers Association. "We're not talking amenities; we're talking basic services."
Toni Vitelli, a retiree from the Lynbrook TA, shared her concerns with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. "My worry is that the schools won't be able to function. So many kids are so much more needy than in decades past."
Educators acknowledged the daunting task they face in getting the proposal turned around, but resolved to keep up the fight. "This is unlike anything we've ever faced before," said Candelario Franco, a member of the United University Professions chapter at SUNY Old Westbury. Franco worries a proposal for differential tuition would destroy SUNY as an affordable option.
"We don't know how this is going to end, but we have to make our voices heard."