With less a month before the deadline for a state budget agreement, NYSUT members came to tell lawmakers their stories — the real-life, front-line impacts of decisions debated in Albany.
Teams of volunteer lobbyists-for-a-day - some 600 in all from every corner of the state - tramped the halls and stairways of the Capitol and Legislative Office Building in search of more teaching and learning, less testing and punishing, and fair and equitable funding for schools in every ZIP code in New York state.
With less a month before the deadline for a state budget agreement, NYSUT members came to tell lawmakers their stories - the real-life, front-line impacts of decisions debated in Albany.
The vast majority of advocates said legislators were welcoming, sympathetic and encouraging, telling them their issues are THE hot topic in the halls of the statehouse this year.
And why wouldn't they be after Gov. Cuomo released a my-way-or-the-highway budget proposal? His budget proposal for 2015-16 includes the authority to fund a school aid increase of up to $1.1 billion, but it does not include school aid formulas to allocate the funds.
NYSUT and the Alliance for Quality Education are advocating for a $2.2 billion increase in education funding. That would help eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment and make a meaningful down payment toward restoring the $4.9 billion in foundation aid that is owed to public schools.
Seth Cohen, president of the Troy Teachers Association, stood up in the overcrowded office of new Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Saratoga Springs, and talked about the crippling loss of local control caused by the tax cap.
He said the cap is nothing but an arbitrary number that limits the ability of local districts to raise the funds they need to make up for the loss of state aid, especially in high-needs communities.
"I'm a high school science teacher in the city of Troy," he said. "In Troy, they will never seek to exceed the cap because they know we could never get over the 60 percent super majority needed to pass. So instead, as costs go up, every year they ask: What can we get rid of to stay under the cap? This year we have only one business teacher, and that's a .8 position. A few years ago, we had five."
Woerner, who comes from a business background, asked what would be the way to fix it?
"Get rid of it!" said Jane Weihe of Retiree Council 10. "That's the fix!"
"Building a budget on the basis of a tax cap is impossible," said Mary Siano, of Long Island's William Floyd TA, in a meeting with state Sen. Ken LaValle, R-Suffolk. "For everything you add" - such as unfunded mandates, utilities and other required costs - "you have to take something away in order to keep your budget under that cap. At William Floyd, we've cut our music, we've cut our arts department. Where do we go next?"
Senate Education Chair John Flanagan, R-East Northport, told NYSUT's June Smith, Mel Stern and a conference room full of Suffolk County folks that he doesn't think the tax cap will be repealed. However, he said, "If we properly fund schools, the tax cap becomes less of an issue."
Flanagan, who has been vocal about the need to eliminate the GEA, also has insisted that the governor's top school aid number, $1.1 billion, is the "floor," the starting point for negotiations.
Participants also advocated for $344.5 million in increased base funding for SUNY, CUNY and their community colleges. The majority would be to cover mandatory costs so the state can keeps its promise to students that a tuition increase would be used to enhance academic programs and services. They also sought support for an increase of $250 per full-time equivalent student in aid to community colleges.
The governor, however, proposes only flat funding. And 10 percent of that amount would be withheld unless campuses can provide measures of improved performance. The performance plans would be subject to approval by the division of the budget.
Pamela Malone of UUP said that's unprecedented. "That is taking a legislative function, higher ed funding, and moving it into the office of the budget," she said.
Barbara Maertz, a UUP retiree from SUNY Farmingdale, talked of a "trifecta" among the unions, the chancellor and the Regents supporting more aid for higher ed, and she proposed using part of the $5-plus billion settlement windfall the state received this year to fund an endowment.
The grassroots advocates also testified to the unfairness of the governor's proposed "reform" of the evaluation system, which he has tied to his budget proposal. No reforms, no education aid increase.
APPR already is "such a flawed system," said Larrilee Jemiola of the Southampton TA. The governor's plan to increase the weight of standardized testing in evaluations and to use outside observers "is only making it worse." The tests are not a valid measure, she said, and the governor seems to be the only one who doesn't recognize that.
"I gave a practice 4th grade math test to parents and they thought it was an 8th grade test," said Kimberly Palmer-Bryce, of the Ichabod Crane TA. "And they couldn't come up with the right answers!"
Parents and teachers - often both at the same time - shared stories about how stressed kids feel and about the adults who are powerless to help.
"All of this mess the governor created is taking away from what we're doing as parents and what we're doing as teachers," said Jeannine Smith of Middle Country TA. "It's a big mess, and he created it all."
Everett Finney, of Schodack Central TA, said one student asked his parent, "Is my teacher going to lose her job because of me?"
Joe Alati, a collision repair tech instructor at Monroe #1 BOCES in Fairport, had an idea how to communicate the travesty of linking a teacher's job security to his or her students' test scores.
"Imagine you were a sportscaster," he said to state Sen. Rich Funke, R-Rochester, who was a long-time sportscaster before running for office in 2014. "You're very popular and doing a great job. And say the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants are in the Super Bowl a lot. Like in the early 1990s, you'd have a lot of job security... But these days, you'd be fired."
Funke said, "What if I were the coach?"
"If you're the coach, you get to choose your players," said Russ Beyer of the Penfield EA. "We don't get to choose our players. We take all of them, and try to put together a Super Bowl team."
A group visiting with state Sen. Carl Marcellino, R-Long Island, offered suggestions on how to tweak the tax cap, sharing the recent report from the Educational Conference Board. They were moving on to the question of tying the governor's "reforms" on testing and APPR to the state aid this year, when Sen. Marcellino stopped the conversation.
"Let me tell you what's happening," he said. "There's a lot of posing and posturing going on. A lot of, 'I'm the king... You push me and I'll push back.' When you play politics, there's a payback."
The former UFT member, school administrator and Syosset school board member thanked the group for NYSUT's endorsement in last year's elections, but, he said, the governor is upset that the union did not endorse him, again, and all this punitive, vindictive educational agenda is just noisy revenge.
As a member of the Senate education committee, led by Sen. Flanagan, Marcellino said, "We're rejecting the governor's proposals."
Perhaps it's appropriate that one of the most poignant comments made during Committee of 100 meetings came from someone who is not yet a teacher, but desperately wants to be.
"Learning is not something that you can quantify and apply across all students," said Matthew B. Pinchinat, 21, a Siena College education major and student teacher in the Maple Hill Middle School in Schodack, Rensselaer County. But that is what he sees in classrooms and in teacher preparation programs.
Pinchinat, who came to the volunteer lobbying day with his mentor, Schodack TA's Finney, said his generation is turning away from teaching as a career option, not because it is becoming harder, which it is, but because the goals of the profession are shifting due to arbitrary outside pressure. Young people look at teaching and see a career in which you have to justify your existence every year, increasingly through standardized testing.
"That's just creating a generation of cynics," he said. "I don't want to be a cynic. … All of our effort should not be spent just to keep a job; our effort should be used to educate the next generation," he said.