March 09, 2016

Committee of 100: Volunteer lobbyists-for-a-day put a face on union priorities

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT Communications
committee of 100
Caption: Many meetings with lawmakers were standing-room only and spilling into the hallways - such as this meeting with Sen. Marc Panepinto. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Bernard Washington, a member of the Syracuse Teachers Association, rose to his feet to address new Assembly member Pamela Hunter, D-Syracuse, about a $15 minimum wage.

A food service worker in the city schools, Washington started at $2.35 an hour 34 years ago. Now he makes about $23 an hour, but only because he works three jobs in the district. He spoke on behalf of many like him, who work so hard, yet struggle to provide.

"We need this now," he said, "to help us support our families. I have a wife and four children. We need it to be able to take care of our families."

No matter how big the Committee of 100 grows, no matter how many halls are clogged and elevators are overloaded at the Legislative Office Building, no matter how many extra chairs can fit in lawmakers' offices, it's all about those face-to-face moments that truly advance the union's priorities.

Want to know about the effects of the undemocratic and crushing tax cap, which starts at 0.12 percent this year?

Here's one story:

The programs that enrich students' experience at Islip — music, art, technology and STEM — "are going to have to be cut this year," said Cheryl Brown of Islip TA, unless state aid makes up the difference. She explained to Assemblywoman Kimberly Jean-Pierre, D-Lindenhurst, that Islip's tax cap is -2.05 — a negative figure. Think about it: The district would need a 60 percent supermajority to approve a budget proposal that cuts its levy by 2 percent.

Want to know a hidden value of teacher centers? Ask Yonkers Federation of Teachers' Samantha Rosado-Ciriello, who met with Andrea Stewart-Cousins, leader of the Senate Democratic Conference. Ciriello noted that when teacher centers were funded at $40 million in 2008, they served 181,000 teachers.

At last year's level of $14 million, they served 110,000. This year the governor proposes cutting the funding to zero, even though teacher centers provide training that's mandated and essential to the profession.

"This is a service nobody else offers," she said. "Where are we going to go?"

And one more thing, she said, pointing to her husband, YFT's Mike Ciriello, sitting next to her. "We met through the teacher center, so please keep funding them!"

Such stories help lawmakers see how their funding decisions affect working people, and they add up to progress.

An annual rite of spring

"This is a beautiful sight," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, looking out over more than 800 grassroots activists who gathered Monday night before Tuesday's Committee of 100 lobbying visits. "This room is packed! This is what we are and who we are - a strong, wonderful and beautiful union!"

NYSUT President Karen E. Magee thanked the volunteers for stepping up and "doing what's necessary in leading the way and moving the agenda forward for the organization. You will model that tomorrow when you have those one-to-one conversations with elected officials."

And that they did.

In this annual rite of spring, NYSUT members rained real-life stories on the legislators who were elected from their own communities. They explained how the decisions made in this state budget process affect the people who live, work and vote in their districts. They shared how the combination of insufficient state support and the tax cap are killing the future of communities all over the state.

Without the resources our kids deserve, "we're not going to be able to do the things we do that help push our students forward," said Shelly Chizzonite, a NYSUT PAC coordinator from Central New York.

With schools owed more than $4.8 billion in state funding, NYSUT seeks a $2.5 billion increase that would boost foundation aid and eliminate the gap elimination adjustment.

June Smith, a member of Smithtown TA, told lawmakers the state needs "to make everybody whole on Foundation Aid and the GEA, and with the surplus ($5.4 billion), this is the year to do it."

Andrew Voigt of Chittenango TA said investing now is crucial for the future. By starving schools in recent years, through the tax cap and underfunding of state aid, the state has "made teaching an undesirable profession. Long term, it's going to cost more if we don't take care of our schools."

"We are facing deep, deep cuts that will have a permanent impact on our district and our community," said Maureen Warren of Bedford TA.

A call to 'invest in futures'

The volunteer lobbyists urged legislators to enact NYSUT's Invest in the Futures -- Save Higher Education Initiative. It would increase funding for SUNY and CUNY, reject the proposed 30 percent cost shift of CUNY operating costs to the City of New York, retain funding for retroactive pay to CUNY employees, enact a real maintenance of effort provision and increase the state subsidy to SUNY hospitals.

It also would increase community college base aid by $250 per full-time equivalent student.

"Higher ed has been starved for years," said Kevin Peterman, president of the Faculty Association at Suffolk Community College. "We still don't have the money from 2008."

Activists also demanded repeal of the punitive receivership law. In Syracuse, struggling schools have already started to turn around through local efforts.

"There are ways for this work to be done," said Kevin Ahern, Syracuse TA president. "We didn't need the receivership gun to our heads. … But if you're going to insist that we do it, there has to be funding."

In addition to the $100 million proposed for struggling and high-needs schools, NYSUT seeks an additional $150 million for existing and new community schools, as well as struggling schools. Activists told lawmakers they could fund this initiative with the money earmarked for the tax credit/voucher proposal that must be rejected.

Getting the details


Here's the NYSUT booklet activists shared with legislators on Tuesday. It outlines, in specific detail, dozens of initiatives the union seeks in the state budget negotiations this year.

The Assembly and state Senate are expected to release their "one-house" budget proposals within days, as their responses to the executive budget proposal from January. State leaders will then conference, try to reconcile the three documents, and negotiate a state budget by April 1.

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