They booed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to lift the cap on charter schools, which would siphon money from the state's underfunded public education system. They railed against his cynical ploy of holding school aid hostage in exchange for the passage of a destructive list of so-called "reforms." And they decried the governor's plans to strip away the local control of schools.
"He's a bully!" yelled a teacher from the back of the packed auditorium, drawing a round of thunderous applause.
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.
"The staff has turned out in droves," said Niagara Wheatfield Teachers' Association President Kevin Rustowicz. "We care about each other and we care about the kids. We need to make sure now that our legislators are our voice in Albany because our governor certainly isn't."
Clad in the colors of their local unions, educators from Niagara Wheatfield, Tonawanda, Niagara Falls, Barker, Lockport, North Tonawanda, Newfane and Clarence banded together in a show of solidarity against Cuomo's anti-education agenda.
"My Son's Teachers Aren't Failing Him, Gov. Cuomo. You Are!" read one placard. "My Son's Teachers Are Highly Effective. His Governor Is Ineffective," read another. And some simply implored Cuomo to "Stop Attacking Public Education!"
Amanda Jasper, a teacher in the Holland Central School District, said Albany needs to back the state's educators. Teachers, she said, "know kids. They know education … Enough with this test-and-punish system."
"How did our focus shift away from kids so quickly?" she asked incredulously.
"A lot of what the governor is doing is un-American," said Republican state Sen. Robert Ortt of North Tonawanda. "He is trying to take away local control. He is trying to take away (the Legislature's) part in the budget process."
Rather than blaming teachers, Ortt said, "why isn't the governor talking about the role poverty plays" in student performance?
Both Ortt and Republican Assemblywoman Jane Corwin of Clarence told the crowd their priority is to end the Gap Elimination Adjustment "this year."
At one point, the forum took on the air of a pep rally as the crowd chanted "Fight, fight, fight!" while Republican Assemblyman John Ceretto of Niagara Falls encouraged the scores of students in attendance to flood the front of the auditorium to underscore exactly who this struggle is about.
Beth Pyskaty, a mother of three sons, said while Cuomo continues spreading the myth of a failing public school system, "the fault is not at the local level; it is squarely on the shoulders of the state."
Albany "will tell you they want more bang for the buck," Pyskaty said. "Well, we need more bucks for the bang they are looking for."