March 26, 2015

We are here to stand strong... and call out Cuomo!

Author: Ned Hoskin and Sylvia Saunders
Source:  NYSUT Communications
activists in the well
Caption: Activists fill the Well at the Capitol. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.


Whipped up by half an hour of raucous chants - "We choose! Public schools!" and "Hey Cuomo! Can you hear us?" and many more - the people were ready to roll.

"We're here," hollered Andy Pallotta, "to Call Out Cuomo!"

And more than 1,000 inspired activists lining the stairs and landings of the Million Dollar Staircase in the Capitol called out, too, shaking the foundations.

"We are here," continued the NYSUT executive vice president, "to reject Cuomo's toxic education agenda... And we are here, to call on the legislators to stand strong against Cuomo and against his toxic agenda!"

With that, the last-minute NYSUT protest to demand a fair and equitable budget unburdened by misguided education policy proposals was underway. Participants came from every corner of the state, representing union members, parents, students, administrators and board members and NYSUT's many coalition partners.

Higher ed, SRPs, retirees and nurses were all represented.

The governor has declared war on the public schools," Pallotta said. "He's wrong on all the issues affecting our children, our schools and our communities."

The event sprawled through the Capitol complex, with participants visiting their lawmakers' offices to leave postcards and signs. An enormous petition hundreds of feet long with 40,000 names was unfurled on the marble staircase in the Legislative Office Building "well," and protesters later delivered hundreds of balloons to the governor's office suite.

activists in the well 

After the chanting crowd migrated to the LOB well from the staircase in the Capitol, NYSUT President Karen Magee summed up the mission.

"We are here for one reason," she said, "and that reason is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's toxic agenda for public education is just plain wrong! ... Gov. Cuomo, wake up!"

Magee urged the governor to visit a school or one of the dozens of community forums hosted by NYSUT locals and regional offices over the past two months, so he could see what teachers, SRPs, nurses, administrators and local board of ed members do every day to make schools work.

And one more thing, she added: "Gov. Cuomo, you keep your hands off my Collective Bargaining Rights!" The crowd erupted in explosive cheers and applause, which soon shaped up into a spontaneous chant, "Hands Off! Hands Off! Hands Off!"

UFT President Michael Mulgrew recalled how two months ago, in a room down the concourse, the governor "declared war on all of us - on our schools and on our kids. And we said, 'You want a war? You've got it, brother!'"

As the polls show and as his legislative support has eroded visibly, Mulgrew said, Cuomo "just got taught a lesson! The governor has never understood this one thing: They are OUR schools, and OUR kids!"

activists in the well 

Isabelle Pipino, a fifth-grader at Caroline Street Elementary School in Saratoga Springs, said she doesn't understand why the governor wants 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be based on student test scores.

While the governor says he wants to reduce the emphasis on standardized testing, his plan would do just the opposite, Isabelle said. "Children actually love their teachers and if they knew their test grades would be used like that, it would put so much stress on us!" Isabelle said. "I'm worried about my fellow students."

Sandie Carner Shafran, a NYSUT Board member and SRP leader of the Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Employees Association, said she represented not only labor and educators, but also parents and grandparents.

"Gov. Cuomo, stop attacking our public schools, and stop holding our schools and our students hostage to an agenda that most New Yorkers clearly reject," she said. The governor "needs to stop telling untruths," she said. "We tell our kids that!"

Iris DeLutro, of the Professional Staff Congress at City University of New York, said the years of "disinvestment in public higher education has taken its toll."

The PSC has been without a successor contract agreement for five and a half years, she said. The last tuition increase was used to pay mandatory operating costs, although it was to be used for full-time faculty and resources. The state is supposed to pay for the operating aid, but its funding falls short.

"It is foolish not to invest in education," she said. "Stop defunding higher ed!"

Seth Cohen, president of the Troy Teachers Association, noted that the governor has called himself the advocate for students, but all of his actions have contradicted that claim.

"Troy has been underfunded by $52 million in the past six years," he said. "We have had to cut 140 positions, while enrollment has gone up." The student population has increasingly complex needs, as well, for language and for social support. While that need has increased, he said, "We now have ZERO social workers - for 4,000 students!"

Looking out over the crowd that filled the concourse level of the LOB, Cohen said, "We are the true advocates of the students."

"Our superintendent understood how important it was and said 'go,'" said Eric Przykuta, president of the Lancaster TA, who came with three colleagues. "He also wanted me to say a few things to Gov. Cuomo - talking to Cardboard Cuomo you never get a response." Cardboard Cuomo was at the recent Lancaster forum where more than 1,000 people showed up to protest the governor's education reform agenda. Since 2011, Lancaster has lost nearly $24 million in state aid due to the GEA. Last year alone it lost $3.7 million.

"Our budgets are always getting cut - about 10 percent a year," Przykuta said. "The district is trying to play a shell game." It moves money around to patch the holes caused by the lack of state aid, but it can no longer continue to do more with less. "That's why we drove four and a half hours in the rain to be here today."

Mark Chiarieri, and English teacher and member of the Highland TA, held a sign that said, "The new ABC's of Cuomo's education plan: Abducted By Corporations."

He said he became an educator "because I believe in reaching children who need help to be successful. … Children who are at risk and underprivileged are hurt the most by these tests. I had seventh-graders in tears about not being able to finish and what it means for them and their education. Any time kids are affected like that it's just horrible."

Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Schenectady, said, "We need to say NO to this governor who takes progressive, pro-union lawmakers like myself for granted," while courting support from Republicans. "We have to be extra vigilant in protecting your rights," he said.

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Saratoga Springs, also said - to great applause - "We have your back! We're going to say NO to the governor's agenda."

AQE Director Billy Easton reminded everyone "We are winning! We are winning because parents and teaches and students and community members are standing up and demanding that their legislators say No to Cuomo."

Citizen Action's Karen Scharff noted "parents and working families from around the state are sick and tired of Gov. Cuomo attacking public schools and attacking public school teachers."

After the hundreds of people delivered their messages to their lawmakers' offices, the protesters reconvened at the Million Dollar Staircase.

NYSUT Director of Legislation Steve Allinger thanked the participants for their incredible advocacy but warned the fight is far from over. "We are still fighting to stop the tyranny of kill-and-drill state testing," he said. "And we're still fighting efforts to tie educator evaluation to high-stakes, invalid testing."

activists in the well 

In a touching closing activity, Allinger invited protesters to blow up a balloon, write a message to the governor, then march over to the "war room" just down the hall from the governor's office. "We've had enough hot air about education," he said. "Tell him how you feel."

"Support, don't belittle education," wrote Brian Westerling, an Amsterdam teacher.

"Childhood should be a journey, not a race," wrote another.

Quoting from her favorite Taylor Swift song, Amsterdam teacher Denise Krohn wrote: "Why do you have to be so mean?"

Marion Shorey, a reading teacher at Ballston Spa Middle School, wrote so much she ran out of room: "I love my students and will do anything for them - including protect them from you …. Stop putting your personal political agenda ahead of New York's children."

Shorey knows personally about the pain of budget cuts. She was one of six remedial teachers whose jobs were cut four years ago. And she's sorry to say she's the only remediation teacher who's been called back so far. "That's one remediation teacher for a building with a thousand kids - and they need services more than ever with these new tests!"

Slowly, the protesters filed through the ornate Senate parlor and headed to the war room with their brightly colored balloons. They held them above their heads as NYSUT Executive President Andy Pallotta told them the single word he wrote on his balloon: "Respect."


call your state reps

It's important to keep calling your state representatives and urge them to stand strong against the governor's education proposals.

It only takes a few minutes: you can look up phone numbers and find more information and guidance at the Member Action Center.

Make the call and tell a friend!

Thank you.

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