November 01, 2021

SRPs find union conference energizing and empowering

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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SRP Conference
Caption: NYSUT Second Vice President Ron Gross (left) and President Andy Pallotta (right) pose with SRP members of the Sachem CTA. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

“I want you to find the power that’s inside you,” said NYSUT Vice President Ron Gross, in a keynote speech to a roomful of School-Related Professionals gathered this past weekend. It was NYSUT’s first in-person conference since COVID-19 struck down the world in March 2020.

As leaders and future leaders, SRPs can find wisdom in all types of historical leaders, said Gross — from baseball to politics, from religion to rock n’ roll – and emulate their leadership qualities.

The 140 statewide school staff members – including 52 first timers – masked up and met in Saratoga Springs on a rainy fall Halloween weekend for professional learning workshops, union networking, and the community that comes from sharing meals.

The joy of meeting in person again as a group was palpable.

“I want you to bring that energy back to your members. They need it like never before, now more than ever,” said Gross, whose NYSUT program services department oversees SRPs.

“We are definitely a force to be reckoned with,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, encouraging the SRPs to identify and work on issues collectively through the union. He led the crowd singing “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie, and they belted out “Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union,” as rain pelted the windows.

Bus drivers, account clerks, teacher aides, teaching assistants, cafeteria workers and custodians were among those meeting to learn and to share concerns, union success stories and ongoing struggles with numerous work changes and staff shortages caused by the pandemic.

“We’ve been knocked down and knocked around. We’ve been pulled here and pushed there,” said Cheryl Rockhill, chair of the NYSUT SRP Advisory Committee who opened the lively conference. "Through it all, SRPs do what we always do. We make it work.”

“Let’s get vocal. We will not sit back and stay quiet,” she said to rousing applause.

Rockhill, who works in transportation and is president of the Brushton-Moira Support Staff, was recognized by NYSUT as SRP of the Year 2021 along with Dorothy Kamps, a member of the United Federation of Teachers.

Her leadership skills were honed by testifying for the need for fair wages on behalf of NYSUT, in working at NYSUT’s Membership Organizing Institute, and taking workshops.

Gross said that emotional intelligence is the primary foundation of a good leader, and that it is derived from self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy and social skills.


Questioning the status quo, confidence without attitude, always being a student, and thinking beyond yourself are principles of leadership, he explained. To illustrate the last example, he said that as former local president of William Floyd United Teachers, the last contract he helped negotiate benefited the newest members of the union.

“You have to think long-term,” he said. “We need to hang together. Our nation depends on it. We need to protect public education.”

“You’ve got to write that vision and make it plain,” said Christel Williams-Hayes, a longtime leader and recording secretary with the nationally known Chicago Teachers Union, who was the keynote speaker Friday night.

The CTU successfully fought against requiring certain paraprofessionals – clerks and tech coordinators - to return to in-person work full time during COVID’s initial onslaught when teachers were working from home. Shields and PPE were not in place yet, she said.

“The arbitrator ruled in our favor,” she said. The workers could work remotely four days a week. The CTU also successfully gained a career ladder for paraprofessionals in 2019 for the first time.

“I challenge you,” she said. “Can you speak to the value of SRPs in your school community? How will your next contract improve the working and living conditions of SRPs?”

She particularly urged the leaders to use their health and safety committees to fix ongoing issues with ventilation and windows in schools– problems that often have been lingering for years but are now vital to the health of faculty, staff and students during a pandemic.

The establishment of a Professional Promise Committee is one sure route to make changes happens, she said. If school personnel have a problem, they tell the committee, which then reports it to the principal. If the problem isn’t fixed within a certain amount of time, the union files a grievance.

“People are dying from COVID,” she said, sharing with the group that she lost her father, two aunts and a best friend to the coronavirus. A dressmaker in her spare time whose specialty was making prom gowns, she instead began making masks for first responders when masks were critically needed. Williams-Hayes gave away the masks, and said that any money donated would be used for scholarships for high school seniors.

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