“All aboard!” shouted NYSUT President Andy Pallotta as he stepped onto the “Fund Our Future” bus for Day One of a seven-week statewide tour calling for schools to receive legislated but long overdue Foundation Aid funding.
First stop was the Capitol, where Pallotta held a news conference, surrounded by a phalanx of Assembly and Senate lawmakers, along with local teacher union presidents who see the repercussions of budget shortfalls every day. New York schools are owed $3.4 billion, Pallotta said, in a state that is home to more billionaires than any other place in the world. Further taxing the wealthy could provide a much-needed revenue stream to help schools.
NYSUT, as a member of the New York State Educational Conference Board, is calling for a $2.1 billion increase in state aid in the 2020-21 state budget, which includes the first installment of a three-year phase-in of the more than $3.4 billion in Foundation Aid owed to more than 400 school districts statewide.
Pallotta promised that NYSUT “will be in every corner of the state” in the coming weeks to carry the urgent message of need. Visits are scheduled for Westchester, Long Island, Southern Tier, North Country, Rochester, Hudson Valley and Buffalo, among other sites.
Without promised state funding, schools have been forced to erase many basics: teachers, custodians, learning programs, teacher aides, librarians, social workers, and school supplies. For example, schools are waiting for $20 million in Scotia-Glenville and $5.58 million in Mohonasen.
“It’s desperately needed ... it’s a constitutional obligation we are failing to meet,” said Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale. There are schools without AP classes, and not enough language teachers or social workers, she said.
As chair of the education committee, Sen. Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, recently conducted a series of forums around the state. “Every district is crying out for the Foundation money they are owed,” she said.
“Show me a strong, well-funded school district, and I will show you a great community,” said Assemblywoman Taylor Darling, D-Hempstead.
“Schools are always the best investment for economic development,” said Sen. John Liu, D-Bayside, calling for the $3.4 billion owed to be satisfied.
As more and more teachers and their unions are called on to help students with food, clothing and hygiene supplies, it is clear that conditions of poverty are holding back many students who need extra support in school.
Pallotta and fellow NYSUT officers left the top stairs of the Romanesque Capitol to board the bus to visit kindergartners in little chairs at a one-story elementary school in nearby Mohonasen. Teachers told them first-hand how the lack of state funding plays out every school day.
Kindergarten teacher Laura Eggleston said programs such as transitional first grade and developmental kindergarten are no longer available. “We’ve had these programs in the past and students really improved,” she said from a table where she sat with students who spoke Farsi, Guyanese, Spanish, Chinese and English.
NYSUT officers Jolene DiBrango, executive vice-president; Philippe Abraham, secretary-treasurer; and Paul Pecorale, vice president, spoke with teachers, students, School-Related Professionals and administrators. They were told that the district has been forced to cut music programs, as well as positions for librarians, teachers and custodians.
“In the last two years, 10 percent of my unit has been reduced,” said Alma Dicocco, school secretary and president of the Mohonasen Support Staff. Remaining employees have more responsibilities added on. “We’ve lost a business office position, a clerical and custodians,” she said.
Class sizes have grown so much that cubbies are stacked in some hallways outside the classroom, because there is no room.
Christine Baumann has 26 students in her class this year; class size used to be a maximum of 17 to 18 students.
“For me, it feels like a social justice issue,” said Michele Hackett, a second- grade teacher. “There’s not a level playing field … but we have the same demands in terms of curriculum and outcome.”
Christina Patterson, president of the Mohonasen TA and a special education teacher, said that when she started teaching there 20 years ago, 9 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced lunch. Now, 46 percent qualify for the program. There are homeless students, and those who “couch surf.”
“When we should be providing more, we’re actually providing less,” she said.
“The bottom line is every student should expect to get a good education from a state like New York,” said Abraham, who oversees social justice for the statewide organization. “Education takes families at the bottom of the ladder and turns them into productive citizens and taxpayers.”
Maria Pacheco, a Mohonasen teacher and NYSUT board member, said demographics are changing and more services are needed for students. She said when she began teaching, she and her three daughters, of Columbian heritage, and one other student were the only people of color. Now, one-quarter of the students are from a different culture, she said.
At Bradt Primary School in Mohonasen, every hallway has signs hung from the ceiling with reminders: “Be a good citizen,” “Be respectful,” “Go Gently.”
New York should heed those words for its obligations to schools.