An intensive, down-to-the-wire advocacy campaign for public education should mean school districts can begin to put some muscle back into school programs.
As NYSUT United went to press, details about the new state budget and revenue plan were still developing, though it appeared lawmakers heard the plea of advocates — who traveled to Albany, held rallies in the Southern Tier and western New York and sent nearly 78,000 faxes and countless postcards — and restored millions in aid from pre-K through college.
"After years of cuts, many school districts were compared to skeletons," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "This budget increase of nearly $1 billion in education aid as well as a pension-smoothing program will provide real relief for K-12 districts and better opportunities for students."
Pallotta praised NYSUT members for their teamwork in getting essential restorations in funding, and for stopping a large number of bad proposals from becoming law.
"To compare this to football, we intercepted practically every bad proposal, and there were many that would have taken away our members' rights or limited our voice at the table through collective bargaining," Pallotta said. "We played offense to restore vital funding to schools, while defending the right of our members' voice in their workplaces."
The drive continued when nearly 500 NYSUT activists from across the state, just weeks after visiting lawmakers in their home districts, came to Albany to make the case for more state aid for schools as lawmakers prepared to vote on a state budget by the April 1 deadline.
Liz Mahoney, a Moriah Central TA member, traveled to Albany with dozens of her North Country colleagues to meet with state Sen. Betty Little.
Budgets are so desperate, Mahoney told the Queensbury Republican, kindergarten might get cut because it's not mandated.
"I've taught kindergarten now for 12 years, and we're chopping our babies off at the knees," she said. "We have got to get more funding."
Mahoney was encouraged that lawmakers did far better than what the executive budget proposed. That plan would have put spending for pre-K to grade 12 at $500 million less than what lawmakers provided back in fiscal year 2009-10.
Lawmakers ultimately made the wise choice to restore more funding than the executive budget proposed. Other wise choices include: $25 million to expand pre-K programs; $15 million for community schools that integrate social, health and other services; $14.26 million for teacher centers; a $4 million increase in library aid and a $250,000 increase in National Board Certification funding.
Even with the funding restorations, Carol Cady vowed to continue fighting for her students in the Southern Tier, including her young sons. Cady, president of the Elmira Heights TA, advocated last month in Albany with NYSUT's Committee of 100 and then rallied in her hometown with nearly 900 people from nine school districts. Her local helped sponsor the event that called for more state aid to stave off further cuts in school staffing and programming.
"When I went to school here 25 years ago, we had a marching band, we had lots of electives at the high school and we had art, music and librarians and all sorts of services at the elementary schools," Cady said. "My sons are starting school in a district that offers so much less and it's not fair."
In western New York, Niagara Wheatfield parents, students and community members joined the local union in a rally for more aid. "We've had enough of [state budget cuts] taking away from our children," said Niagara Wheatfield TA President Kevin Rustowicz.
High school senior Kaleigh McMonagle said cuts to Advanced Placement could harm her college aspirations.
"I am planning on going to college for pre-med with a focus on biology," she said. "I was upset when I almost wasn't admitted to AP Biology class this year. Then, when I was in, I was shocked to find out there weren't enough seats in the classroom. We were forced into large lab groups."
Besides getting more school aid, which should restore many of the programming cuts and positions that districts had been projecting, NYSUT activists prevented a number of bad bills from becoming law, including a loophole that could have allowed all school districts to waive special education requirements in law and regulation.
NYSUT also cheered the increase in the minimum wage and an extension of the millionaires' tax on high-wage earners.
"Those two proposals show that lawmakers are receiving our message, and running with it," Pallotta said, vowing the union would keep up the pressure. "We have our playbook now for the spring and we still have much to work on," including preventing irresponsible voucher schemes, passing the Truth About Testing Act of 2012 and reforming the state's property tax cap.
NYSUT activists will continue to ask lawmakers to amend the irresponsible tax cap law to exempt school safety measures, costs from natural disasters and other items that are extraordinary or beyond the control of school districts. They say lawmakers need to replace the 60 percent supermajority required to exceed the cap with a simple majority. NYSUT is challenging the tax cap in court.
Keeping tax cap reform a priority is welcome to members like Rachel Busher, a member of New Paltz United Teachers, who told lawmakers in March about how the tax cap is stealing opportunities from students.
A remedial teacher, Busher has six students for 20 minutes at a time, when it should really be four students for 30 minutes. Drama club, art club, chorus and band are "all clubs that were cut since the 2 percent tax cap," went into effect, said Busher. "We've cut pre-K and after-school." Special education services also have been cut.