They waited in long lines at security, jammed into overcrowded elevators and elbowed their way through harried hallways to get to standing-room-only meetings with legislators.
Of course lawmakers tried to make small talk and tell them it’s going to be a tough state budget year — but NYSUT activists stayed on message with four simple words:
"It’s just not enough."
It’s the pre-budget crazy season at the Capitol, as both the senate and assembly are putting together their one-house budget bills and beginning serious negotiations with the governor for the 2019-20 state budget due April 1. It was perfect timing for NYSUT’s annual Committee of 100 Lobby Day, as more than 700 educators and other staff from school districts, SUNY and CUNY campuses and community colleges came to Albany today to make the case for more state support.
Though the governor’s budget proposal includes a modest increase in funding for schools, NYSUT is calling for a $2.2 billion increase in school aid, additional funding for public colleges, wage justice for CUNY adjunct faculty, teacher center funding and the restoration of a $89.7 million state subsidy for SUNY hospitals, which serve our state’s neediest patients.
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Activists also strongly urged lawmakers to reject the governor’s plan to make the tax cap permanent.
“The current tax cap is bad enough but making it permanent would be devastating,” said Phil Cleary of North Syracuse Education Association. “A lot of costs we just can’t control— and staying below the consumer price index means cuts and hurting kids.”
When lawmakers tried to argue the tax cap is necessary to keep property taxes under control, advocates said the best way to keep taxes down is for the state to provide more funding.
If the tax cap cannot be eliminated, activists called for exempting certain expenses such as costs related to natural disasters; enrollment growth; school safety and school resources officers; and students with special needs.
Staying within the cap is especially difficult for small districts, said Erin Smith of Depew Teachers Organization. “You might get an additional student who needs special education services and the district simply can’t provide what their IEP calls for. And when you don’t provide what’s needed, it’s not just unfair for the child — it also gets more expensive down the line.”
Advocates also called for removing the 60 percent supermajority requirement to exceed the cap.
“As a public official, you’d be pretty ticked off if you got 51 percent of the vote and lost,” Cleary told Assemblywoman Pam Hunter, D-Syracuse. “The way it’s structured now, you’re robbing people of democracy, where 40 percent can take down something the majority really supports.”
“Look how many elections are decided by one- to two-vote differentials,” said Paul Szymendera of Sweet Home Education Association. “A supermajority is ridiculous.”
“Supermajorities are a way of not making things happen,” said Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst.” I understand your concern.”
PSC Vice President Andrea Vasquez discusses the plight of adjunct faculty. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
Another key concern in meetings was the plight of adjunct faculty.
“This is a moral question, an educational justice question — a racial justice issue for our students,” said Andrea Vasquez, vice president of the Professional Staff Congress representing CUNY faculty. She said the starting pay for CUNY adjuncts is currently $3,200 per course, or as low as $20,000 per year.
“Near poverty pay for the majority of CUNY faculty should not be tolerated,” Vasquez said. “It is unfair to adjuncts and unfair to CUNY students.”
The Professional Staff Congress is seeking an increase in adjunct pay to $7,000 per course. While adjunct pay is subject to collective bargaining, solving the adjunct pay crisis will require public investment. NYSUT is advocating for $150 million to provide adjuncts with wage justice.
Another way to provide more state funding for CUNY and SUNY is to eliminate the TAP gap. The “gap” is the difference between the tuition credit that financial aid students receive and the actual cost of tuition. This gap has become an unfunded mandate that CUNY and SUNY are forced to absorb, without reimbursement from the state, and the gap continues to grow annually with every tuition increase. NYSUT is asking for $150 million to eliminate the TAP gap so that SUNY and CUNY can redirect that funding to other much-needed programs and services.
Initiatives like the state’s Excelsior scholarship program and the Dream act are commendable, but the state needs to start investing in higher education, Vasquez noted. “What are the students getting if state funding is diminished from year to year?” Vasquez asked. “Access without quality is what?”