From 1842-1889, the New York state fair traveled to 11 different cities before eventually settling in at its permanent site in Syracuse. Yesterday, it was the unionized public educators from dozens of cities and small towns who were traveling: They came to that site on opening day of the Great New York State Fair to speak to members of the governor's office about how he has been unfair to public education.
Although opening day is called Governor's Day, Andrew Cuomo was nowhere to be seen on Thursday.
But the Central New York educators pressed on as nearly 1,000 union members and their supporters arrived from local communities as well as from communities in the North Country, Hudson Valley, Western New York, the Capital District and Long Island. Many of them eagerly and passionately spoke to TV and radio reporters about how inappropriate testing is driving students to despair and sucking the life out of creative teaching. With wafting scents of fried dough and sausages following them down rows upon rows of food vendors, they spoke about how relentless state budget cuts have translated into vital education programs being dismantled, teachers, school-related professionals and social workers being laid off, and classrooms being overcrowded.
"We teach our kids not to be bullies, to be upstanders instead of bystanders," said Brandie Norton, a fourth-grade ELA teacher from Sandy Creek Teachers Association. "We can't just sit by and continue to let a bully be a bully. The governor continues to be unfair to public schools. We've continually invited him to visit public schools and he won't do it. We need equitable funding. He bullies our legislators."
"Cuomo's terrible for education. He denigrates and disrespects teachers," said Carol Frost, a retiree from Copenhagen TA.
"We're here today to protest the governor. He's destroying public education and it's the bedrock of democracy," said retiree Jerry Lotierzo of the Liverpool Faculty Association, also a delegate to the area labor federation. He said that he and retiree Bill Spreter of Hannibal TA, a delegate to the Greater Syracuse Labor Council, were recently denied entrance to a public event where Gov. Cuomo was speaking in nearby Solvay. Other labor leaders were invited and allowed in, but they were not, he said, because they are retired teachers.
The education activists who showed up early were not allowed into the ribbon-cutting ceremony that opened the fair, but they deftly followed Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul – who filled in for Gov. Cuomo. She had lunch with Beth Chetney, president of the Baldwinsville Teachers Association, who talked about the high price students were paying for over-testing and underfunding. Later Hochul spoke with Ballston Spa school social worker Karin Fine, who impressed upon the lieutenant governor the need to address the poverty issues affecting so many students and their families.
"Education and teachers aren't the problem," Fine said in a conversation in the 4-H building. Citing issues of poverty, she said poor parents in rural areas have no transportation to school events or access to health care; many students move numerous times as parents are evicted due to job loss, seasonal work or divorce.
Social workers, Fine added, provide resources, counseling and emotional support, along with mandated services to students with social needs and behavioral issues. Yet, too often, their positions are cut due to budget restraints.
Testing remains a fiery concern of educators, who spoke about its negative impact on students.
"I work in special education and the tests kids have to take make them so anxious that they're still worried a week or two after," said Donna Arno, president of the Wayne–Finger Lakes BOCES Association of School Support Personnel.
"The children stress out …They're crying, it's awful," added Joyce Dziekonski, North Rose Walcott Service Employees Association. "And then I feel bad for the teachers," she said, noting their evaluations are based on how these students perform.
Hiring an outside, profit-making company to develop tests is a further insult. As for Pearson, which was recently fired by the Board of Regents following heavy push from NYSUT, "We could have built 30 new schools with what we paid them!" said Pat Sentoff, who retired after a 37-year teaching career with Baldwinsville TA.
"These tests are not being used diagnostically or for the remediation that should follow," Sentoff said, standing at the entrance to the fairgrounds. "Kids can't do what they love and they're being told they're stupid."
Brendan Van Epps, band teacher at West Hill, said he frequently loses instruction time with students who have to be elsewhere to prepare for the test or to take the test. His school has also lost 1.5 music teachers.
"How is it (music) is not important?" he asked. "My kids run to my room. Music is about creativity and using the brain a different way. Some kids blossom in music. It becomes their identity."
Pointing to a robotics demonstration, Van Epps' wife, substitute teacher Karen McNary, added: "This is what happens when children have time to be creative, instead of taking tests."
Greg McCrea, president of the 155-member West Hill District Educators Association, said his district has lost 17 percent of its staff just in the last five years.
Behind him, tractors pulled trolleys around the huge fair for those who found it too tiring to walk everywhere. Inside the dairy building, a massive butter sculpture depicts the Capitol building in Albany and a milk-toting Statue of Liberty: symbols of justice and action.
"Public education needs much more respect," said Syracuse TA teacher Naomi Ali, who came to the fair with her son, Aaron.
Mark Warner, Syracuse TA, is a teaching assistant and president of the SRPs in the union. He came to Thursday's event, he said, to be a voice and to get more involved for the SRPs, whose work ranges from driving a bus to assisting teachers to administrative to working in the cafeteria.
Lisa Dicosimo, a sixth-grade teacher from East Syracuse, said many fairgoers spotted the matching shirts of the union members from various NYSUT locals and asked about their cause. Most people responded "Good for you," she said.
The first New York State Fair was held in 1841, and the fair has been ongoing except during wartime. It was silent from 1942-1947 during WWII, when it became a military base. The fair is known for competitions in agriculture and animal prize demonstrations; education; musical shows; and food, among other niches. This year, there are no poultry competitions due to an outbreak of the Avian Flu.
The hefty turnout of educators at the fair yesterday "speaks volumes about what they think the governor is doing to their children's schools," said Chetney, who, with other Central New York leaders, helped organize the event.
"I'm very excited to be here," said Traci Thayer, a seventh-grade teacher from Baldwinsville TA. "It's good to see us all together working on the same thing."
"This is the latest in a series of grassroots efforts to get the message out to the governor that working against parents and educators is not the right idea," said Don Carlisto, co-president of the Saranac Lake TA. "It started with Picket in the Pines and went on to the bus tours (and forums) last winter … It's a continuation of our members saying, 'We're going to be here for the long haul.'"