“Stand up, speak up,” Cheryl Rockhill, president of the Brushton Moira Support Staff Organization, told a Zoom room full of her colleagues learning how to lobby at a NYSUT Town Hall last night. “Our issues are so important, elected officials need to hear them.”
On the table: proposed bills for workplace safety standards; a requirement to provide school bus attendants; job protection for School-Related Professionals laid off during the pandemic; a provision for due process; and uniform protocols for toileting.
New York State Senator Shelley Mayer, D-Port Chester, chair of the Senate Education Committee, reminded the SRPs of the power of collective action. In this year’s state budget, funding for Foundation Aid has finally been set up after years of advocacy. Foundation Aid is an approved funding formula for the state’s neediest schools — but the state has failed to meet those obligations for years.
Now, a plan is in place.
“NYSUT and all of us really had an extraordinary victory,” Mayer said. All the years of coalition building, topped by the extreme needs laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in Foundation Aid finally being funded.
“The year of COVID has shown what a challenge our schools have,” she said. “The path forward is to do our best for these kids, and you’ve done that. It’s been traumatic and you’ve been there for them.”
SRPs cleaned and sanitized schools, and prepared and delivered meals, homework packages and Wi-Fi hot spots to students during the pandemic shutdown, said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
“It’s been a difficult year, and we are not out of the woods yet,” Pallotta said. “We’ll come out stronger and tougher.”
The recently enacted state budget is an example of what can be achieved by working together, he said. Foundation Aid will be phased in over the next three years, providing funding to underserved schools owed money by the state. Just before the pandemic shut down school buildings, NYSUT embarked on a statewide Fund Our Future bus tour, visiting schools, gathering data, and collecting and sharing first-hand stories about how shortfalls have impacted students. The call for Foundation Aid is finally being answered.
“This is something we’ve been fighting for for years,” he said.
“With your help, we fought for every school getting up to 60 percent Foundation Aid this year,” Senator Mayer said. Those schools already at that benchmark will see Foundation Aid of 2 to 3 percent.
Federal money, she added, will not supplant state money. The state has also agreed to reimburse schools for transportation and other COVID-19 related costs.
“We fought for that; the union fought for that; (U.S.) Senator (Chuck) Schumer fought for that,” she said.
Sen. Mayer told the SRPs on the town hall meeting how the Senate has many new members, and it is important to meet with them. Many of them ran on a platform in support of public education, the senator said, and they need to hear frontline stories.
Mayer also advised the SRPs to learn about the elected officials they are to meet with during May 4 and 5 NYSUT SRP lobby days, calling it “incredibly relevant.”
Some SRPs are new to grassroots advocacy; others have been taking part in the union’s Committee of 100 and constituency focused lobby days for a long time.
Ron Gross, NYSUT second vice president, told the SRPs that members often hear that “It’s not a good time” for requests to be funded or bills to be passed when they meet with lawmakers.
“It comes down to four words,” he said. “If not now, when?”