Parents, teachers, school board candidates and education advocates stamped their feet and blew on their hands trying to keep warm Thursday while holding onto their handmade signs outside East High School in Buffalo.
In the minutes before the opening bell, under leaden skies shrouding the building that towers above the city's Northampton Street, they froze for the sake of the kids inside.
"Today we stand up for more funding to provide children with the resources to meet all of their needs, so they can excel every day," said Gayla Thompson of Citizen Action of Western New York.
The scene in Buffalo was just one of many playing out at schools and in communities throughout New York State as part of a 'day of action'. The coordinated campaign was designed to show support for public education and urge lawmakers to provide fair and adequate funding for K-12 and higher education, modify the state's undemocratic tax cap, end receivership and fund full-day pre-Kindergarten.
In the Southern Tier, for example, advocates donned union T-shirts that demanded "Respect Public Education." And on Long Island, activists were to gather with picket signs during rush hour traffic.
A candlelight vigil, meanwhile, was planned in the Hudson Valley. Union members in the Capital District staged a 'walk-in' in the morning and scheduled a letter-writing campaign at night. In Rochester, unionists and public-education advocates were taking part in a large-scale march from a city elementary school to the Monroe Community College downtown campus, where a rally was to be held.
Organizers in Buffalo chose East High School as that city's point of contact because of its historic African American roots, and its status as a receivership school.
Coordinated with the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools — including NYSUT, AQE and Citizen Action —the event focused on the need for a state aid increase of $2.9 billion, and replacing receivership with community schools.
"We don't need outsiders coming in here to tell us what to do," said Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. "We need support systems and guidance counselors and attendance officers. We need more resources."
Buffalo schools are owed $1 billion in state aid under the provisions of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, which the state has ignored for years, he said.
"We don't need receivership, we need leadership from state officials to provide the funding our schools deserve," Rumore said.
"We are educators with vast years of experience," said East High teacher Sophia Howard Johnson. "We don't need outsiders coming into our schools and telling us how to teach."
NYSUT Organizer Louisa Pacheco said the coalition defies the state's program to use the receivership law to wrest local control from parents, the community, administrators and teachers, and it demands equitable investment from the state.
"The main point we want to make," she said, "is the community is totally behind our public schools."
At the end of a very long, cold day, several dozen activists from Rochester-area locals trudged through the twilight from School 9 on North Clinton Avenue, under the railroad tracks and up to the Monroe Community College Damon City Campus in the middle of downtown, waving signs and chanting "Now is the time!"
“Hot air is not cold cash,” said MCC Faculty Association’s William Drumwright. “We’ve had enough of the hot air and now it’s time for Albany to put up the cold cash.”
He said schools and schoolchildren need money for books, for supplies, for the teachers they deserve in order “to develop themselves, and to live full lives.”
Citing the chronic underfunding of poor urban districts, Rochester Teachers Association member Candace Rubin said education used to be “the equalizer. But now it has become the unequalizer (due to) systemic problems and the lack of will to deal with them.”
She said the Rochester city schools lose more funding to charter schools than suburban schools, have more special education needs and more English language learners. Rochester is a refugee center, and the schools have students speaking 87 different languages. Many of these students have escaped strife and may have very little or no previous formal education.
“They need a lot of services, and those are expensive,” she said. “This should be the year we are fully funded.”
Parent Eileen Graham, representing the ROC Coalition for Public Ed, said, “I feel that now is the time, we can’t keep building with nothing.”
“This must be the year we address the funding shortfalls,” said the RTA’s Carrie Gilroy, and the unequal funding between the poor schools and the wealthy ones.
This was no “us vs. them” message: suburban schools were represented, as well, marching in solidarity. Scott Steinberg, president of the West Irondequoit TA, was there, still wearing the blue union T-shirt that his local members wore to mark the Day of Action in their buildings.