Plattsburgh: 'Mr. Cuomo, we are TURNING... UP.. THE... HEAT!'
President Karen E. Magee and NYSUT Board of Directors Member Don Carlisto kick off the event in Plattsburgh. Photo by Steve Jacobs.
Standing in the bed of a pickup truck, wearing a black "Call Out Cuomo" T-shirt over a heavy sweater, NYSUT President Karen E. Magee squinted into the sun to scan the faces of 500 people gathered in 12-degree cold at Plattsburgh High School Saturday morning.
She ventured it was appropriate they were all out there on one of the warmest days in weeks, because, "Mr. Cuomo, we are TURNING … UP … THE … HEAT!"
The crowd erupted, and a long day began. Before it was over, some 2,000 educators, parents, students, administrators, board members and lawmakers turned out for rallies in three sites on a 161-mile bus trip from Lake Champlain to the Canadian border, and on to the far side of Fort Drum.
"All across the North Country, communities are uniting against this disastrous budget," Magee said, "which shortchanges students and the region's public schools and colleges in order to reward the governor's biggest campaign contributors — New York City billionaire hedge fund managers who want to privatize and profit from public education."
AFT President Randi Weingarten came from Washington, D.C., to the North Country for the second time in less than a year — remember Picket in the Pines? — to help spread the message across the top of her home state. She said the governor is not only attacking teachers and schools, but also our basic value system.
"New Yorkers know what's right for our kids," she said. "Schools are the center of this community. These are North Country values, and these are American values. What the governor has proposed is a betrayal of our values: Public schools are a public good, and they are for the public!"
Photo by Steve Jacobs.
The Plattsburgh Teachers Association, led by President Mary Lou Megarr, hosted the first stop, with a small tent to serve coffee and hand out posters, signs and buttons. Other local union members, parents, students, babies in strollers and retirees in chairs bundled up to support education and justice.
Someone had some pictures of a 1975 strike rally in the same parking lot in the same spot with the same houses in the background. If you looked closely, you could see former TA President Rod Sherman, much younger, standing on the back of another, much older, pickup truck.
Hopping up Saturday to lead a chant of "No mo', Cuo-mo!" the underdressed Lake Placid EA President Brendan Gotham's hands trembled visibly from the cold. But, he hollered, "We are freezin' for a reason!"
Describing Lake Placid schools as, "A place where students can get two meals a day and be in a warm and safe place," Gotham said the governor and Legislature must do more to address poverty and improve equity in the North Country.
"I have taught the son of a millionaire who sat next to the son of a man on public assistance. We explored the same novels. We need to do more of that. … That is the power of democracy. That is America."
Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents academic and professional faculty on SUNY campuses, including several in the North Country, said the governor is making the same mistakes in higher ed that he is making in preK-12.
Citing the Native American traditions in the region, Kowal said the Abenaki used to make major decisions by considering whether the results would be good for seven generations down the road.
"I don't think the governor is thinking seven minutes down the road!"
Massena: 'The person who loses the most is the student!'
Photo by Steve Jacobs.
Two hours and more than 80 miles later, the bus glided to a stop in front of Massena High School as a thousand supporters held homemade signs and chanted in unison: "Fund Our Schools."
They cheered as Magee and Weingarten stepped to the pavement, and watched others pour off the bus until the guest of dis-honor arrived: A life-size cardboard cutout of the governor. The cheers turned to a blizzard of boos.
In the overflowing auditorium, the day's enthusiasm grew as Massena TA President Erin Covell welcomed the crowd and thanked scores of volunteers who pulled the event together. School districts and local unions from all over the region were represented.
Pointing out that the governor has taken $250 million from North Country schools alone through the Gap Elimination Adjustment, NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner said Cuomo lied in his recent report about failing schools.
"You know how many failing schools on his list are from the North Country?" he asked. "Zero!"
Messner said Cuomo's end goal is to privatize education to make profits for his hedge-fund billionaire friends, and we cannot let that happen.
"This is a fight we cannot afford to lose," he said. "We must win this fight for our kids, for our schools and for democracy."
Massena student Sean Casey, junior class president, athlete and musician, lamented the loss of dozens of faculty over the past few years, due to lost funding from the GEA. It has meant the elimination of high school electives, JV sports, arts programs and the invaluable freshman academy that helps students transition to high school.
Addressing the cardboard cutout, he said: "I was going to take a public speaking course, which might have helped me deliver this speech today, but due to budget cuts, Massena wasn't able to offer it anymore … so, thanks!"
In all seriousness, he emphasized, "The person who loses the most is the student! … It's me! … All we want is quality education in the North Country!"
Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, said the governor's partnership with profiteers in education reminded him of the veterinarian who went into business with a taxidermist: "They put up a sign that said: Either way, you get your dog back!" Yes, people laughed.
Easton said the governor has spun a string of broken promises: He promised universal pre-K, but only 45 kids in the North Country got it. That's 1 percent of the 4-year-olds in the region. Cuomo promised three years ago that the state would fund extended learning time in schools that need it. Never happened. Cuomo promised to fund the development of community schools to ensure kids got the health-care, nutritional and social supports they needed to succeed. But he delivered only 1 percent of what was promised. And, years ago, he promised to be the great equalizer by fully funding the foundation aid obligations agreed to in the wake of the CFE decision. We all know what happened with that.
"He has led our state to the greatest inequality in education in our history!" Easton said.
The budget process is happening right now, he said, and it won't be over until the Legislature gets its say. He urged people to contact lawmakers and tell them to stand up and reject the governor's proposals.
"Andrew Cuomo is the governor," he said. "He's not the king!"
Indian River: 'Stand up and roar!'
Photo by Steve Jacobs.
The gymnasium at Indian River High School near Fort Drum is papered with blue and white banners celebrating championships in all kinds of sports; Saturday afternoon it also was draped with banners of local unions and education supporters. And the gym was full of the champions for our school children.
Cheryl Smith, president of the host Indian River Education Association, slammed the governor's cynical withholding of aid information as the school budget season progresses toward immovable deadlines leading up to the May 19 voting day.
"The governor's clearly trying to sabotage this process, … and we are not going to look the other way!" she said.
Local Assemblywoman Addie Russell said the governor's proposals have been insulting and that he has essentially told lawmakers and advocates to "Sit down and shut up!" She has a different plan, however, and exhorted supporters all over the region to "Stand Up and Roar!"
Weingarten offered a note of encouragement and solidarity to the members — and families and friends — of the Army's 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, which is due to deploy, again, to Afghanistan this spring.
"We think about them as the anchor of democracy, just as we think of our public schools as the anchor of democracy, protecting our rights," she said.
The final word on the day went to Kevin Todd, a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher and vice president of the Watertown Education Association.
Todd pointed to the absurdity of Cuomo's infamous statement: "Consider me the lobbyist for the students." He ran down a half dozen of the governor's actions that blatantly contradict his claim.
"I get tired of hearing people say, 'I would do anything for the kids,'" he said. And the governor may be the biggest hypocrite.
But, Todd said, "I know everyone in this room is in agreement that we will do whatever it takes to help our kids."
The bus tour was organized by Jeannette Stapley, a retired teacher from Schroon Lake, and Don Carlisto, a Saranac Lake teacher and political activist. Stapley and Carlisto are members of NYSUT's Board of Directors. Carlisto said, "The North Country is fighting back, sending a clear message to the governor and our elected legislators that public education is working. The governor's 'test-and-punish' agenda may play with the New York City hedge fund managers who contributed to Cuomo's campaign, but it is failing the test with North Country residents."