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March 03, 2020

FUND OUR FUTURE: Grassroots activists at the Capitol: 'It's all about the revenue'

Author: Ned Hoskin
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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committee of 100
Caption: GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS. A contingent of grassroot activists prepare to meet with their state representatives. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

With the state facing a reported $6.1 billion deficit and an executive budget proposal that shorts state aid to pre-k–12 schools and flatlines support for public higher ed, the solution is apparent.

“As far as the need for more revenue goes,” said John Kuryla, president of North Syracuse Education Association, “we’re all in the same waterway. Some people are in front of us, some are along with us, and some are behind us. But in the end, we are all going over the same waterfall.”

He dropped that metaphor in a meeting with state Sen. Rachel May, D-Syracuse, as part of NYSUT’s annual Committee of 100, which brought more than 500 volunteer activists to Albany to tell their stories from the front lines of public education and health care.

Learn about NYSUT's "Fund Our Future" campaign at FundOurFutureNY.org.

Unfortunately, every year, at least since the recession of 2008–09, the grassroots lobbyists-for-a-day have to beg lawmakers for more money. The final state budget is supposed to be enacted by April 1, when the 2020–21 fiscal year begins.

Participants asked lawmakers to sign a pledge to support new taxes on the ultrawealthy to invest in public services on which millions of New Yorkers rely.

NYSUT and a coalition of unions recently released poll results showing that 92 percent of New York voters support new taxes on the super rich.

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“With 112 New York billionaires sitting on $525 billion in wealth and more than 46,000 multimillionaires residing in the state,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, “asking them to pay their fair share would generate more than $12 billion in revenue.”

The activists all made a pitch for meaningful state intervention in the troubled Rochester city schools, where 103 educators were laid off over the New Year holiday. Without $35 million in additional state aid, the district could face 800 more layoffs this year. The district also needs a state-appointed monitor responsible to the state education department.

While less severe, similar problems affect schools all over. Participants explained how a lack of funding prevents them from doing their jobs.

“What we really need to look at are poverty levels,” said Kimberly Busch of the Canton Central TA, in a meeting with Sen. Joe Griffo, R-Rome.

“I believe there are no such things as a bad child, or a stupid child,” she said, but there are many children struggling with hunger, neglect or abuse at home. “We address that by having more mental health professionals.”

Jen Clark, NYSUT political action coordinator in the Southern Tier, explained to Assemblyman Christopher Friend, R-Elmira, that revenue starved districts in the region are struggling to do more with less, and it’s less every year.

Citing a visit to Elmira on the “Fund Our Future” bus tour, she said, “those are fantastic teachers, but they don’t have the help they need for their students to succeed.” In addition to the need for social-emotional support systems, schools are losing teachers and class sizes are ballooning.

“We have a shortage” of teachers, said Adam Shrader, a special ed teacher from Salmon River TA. “We don’t even have substitutes, so they pull essential teacher aides and teaching assistants from special ed classrooms to cover other classes.”

Pamela Malone, UUP leader at Empire State College and a NYSUT Board member, described how the executive budget proposal continues to hold SUNY and CUNY instructional core budgets flat. “It cripples our institutions and does a disservice to the students they serve,” she said. She also asked for lawmakers to end the unfair practice of requiring CUNY and SUNY to fund the tuition shortfall for students with TAP grants — the TAP Gap.

Ryan Hersha, local union president at Corning Community College, said the TAP Gap has even crept into some community colleges.

Community colleges, which have been facing reduced enrollment across the state, are seeking an increase in state aid of $250 per full-time equivalent student and a revised methodology to avoid harm caused by dwindling numbers. The state continues to ignore its statutory obligation to fund 40 percent of costs, which means colleges “can’t plan for the future,” he said.

The unionists also urged restoration of support for teacher centers and critical subsidies to SUNY hospitals, and for improvements to the state’s tax cap law to make it more fair and equitable.

The day included a boisterous rally in the Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase with dozens of speakers from other unions and the Legislature.

The chant “Tax the Rich, Defend the Poor!” echoed through the stone hallways and stairwells.

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