March 06, 2015

Call Out Cuomo: Frozen but fighting in Central New York

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
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Caption: More than 1500 activists rallied outside Utica City Hall Thursday night. Photo Michael J. Okoniewski.

Braving the frigid air in snappy shirts and broad-rimmed, black hats, a Utica high school band belted out "Rocky," "Soul Man," and "All I Do Is Win" to 1,500 pumped-up supporters of public education who came to the State Office Building.

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Related story:

Western New Yorkers denounce governor's public education plans

Despite a biting wind and temperatures that barely reached 10 degrees here Thursday evening, nearly 1,000 parents, educators and community members from across Niagara and Erie counties filled Niagara Wheatfield High School to denounce the underfunding of the state's public school system and the over-testing of its students. READ MORE.

It was minus-4 degrees with the wind chill in downtown Utica. Today, people are reporting frostbite on cheeks and fingers from being out in the brutal cold at yesterday's rally for public education.

The metal on the horns was mighty cold.

"These are really tough kids today to pull this off," shouted Alex Wronka, bandleader at Proctor High School, as he conducted the student-musicians. Wronka is a member of the Utica Teachers Association, led by Cherie Grant.

"It's not just teachers being attacked. It's the fabric of our democratic communities," Grant shouted to the rowdy crowd, who turned out in record numbers for another New York rally to protest the pillaging of public education.

The crowd marched to the rally site from a church blocks away, filling the sidewalks on either side of the highway. Teachers held banners, like the one declaring "Central Valley Can't Wait." The air was alive with chants and the tinny sounds of cold car horns blasting out support from drivers passing by.

New York Mills teacher and TA member Steve Shrey held a sign depicting the governor with, well, rather unusual hands. It read: "We Must Stop Governor Andrew Scissorhands." A student sign read: "When You Don't Fund Education, I am a Child Left Behind."

Third-grader Steve Jaworski, who traveled by car with his mom from nearby Rome, clutched a neon green sign that rattled with the young boy's shivering. It read: "Testing Testing Testing."

He wasn't talking about the band warming up at the microphone, either.

His mom, Danielle, drove to the rally because she is upset and frustrated by over testing. "The testing is way too much. I'm appalled by it." Students are being tested on concepts they haven't learned yet and are having too much advanced information thrust at them, she said.

Supporters came by bus, car and on foot, wearing parkas, scarves, hats, mittens and boots — except for some high school students who happily insisted they were fine even without hats or gloves.

"Fight, fight, fight. Education is a right," chanted Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, D- Utica, to the crowd. "Let's start treating teachers like the professionals they are. They are a voice for students."

Utica high school senior Trinh Troung - who penned an open letter to Gov. Cuomo telling him how, in her school, books are photocopied and students have to stand in overcrowded classrooms — received boisterous shout-outs from the crowd. She encouraged the supporters to "empower each other, lift each other up," and said that, without public education, she would not be going on to college this fall.

Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford, thanked everyone for coming out in the cold and pointed to a particular sign in the crowd, calling up the woman holding it. It was Jeanne Marley, teacher and local president of the 55-member New York Mills TA, hoisting an acrostic CUOMO sign: "Conniving Underhanded Oppositional Megalomaniacal Obnoxiously Overbearing."

The crowd went crazy with cheers. Someone brought out "Cardboard Cuomo" to stand on the stairs with Marley. He's the one who shows up at schools and forums to listen to teachers and students and gets to know the programs at schools and learns how his politics and power have damaged people's lives. He's all ears and all cardboard.

"We wouldn't be here if we weren't mad," said Marley, a special education teacher for grades 7-12. "The district has to pay for tests and the cost of testing takes away from learning."

Martin Messner, NYSUT secretary-treasurer who attended the rally with NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, told the crowd that the governor "cannot bully us. He can't intimidate us!"

James and Jessica McNair, both of the New Hartford TA, reminded the crowd "Kids are more than a test score!"

Adria Bukovsky, who dressed her Cardboard Cuomo in a black T-shirt pronouncing "Call Out Cuomo," came to the rally from Mount Markham with a strong crowd of public education supporters. As president of the Mount Markham TA and a teacher of U.S. history and government, she is equipped with the knowledge to aid her in assessing what is happening in New York.

"His (Cuomo's) reform agenda and attempt to privatize education takes away our students' rights in the classroom by forcing testing, takes away authentic learning, and doesn't teachers to modify instruction to individual student needs," said Bukovsky.

Additionally, state funding cuts have resulted in "major" cuts to staff, athletics, clubs and library services, she said.

Ann Duran, an art teacher from the Rome TA, carried a banner with colleague Tina Meisenhelder reading "Bellamy Cares About Kids."

"They're always trying to fix us. We're not the problem," Duran said.

"The problem is poverty," Meisenhelder said.

Utica fine arts and music teacher Al Shaw said that every year his district has more and more students, many from a refugee center located in the city. "We're underfunded by millions. Millions! Class sizes are huge," he said.


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Keep up the fight! Take action at www.nysut.org/allkidsneed.