April Issue
March 31, 2014

Activists: 'We're here to do what's right'!

Author: By Ned Hoskin
Source: NYSUT United
NYSUT’s multi-media advertising campaign warned lawmakers not to ignore the needs of children across the state.
Caption: NYSUT's multi-media advertising campaign warned lawmakers not to ignore the needs of children across the state.

More underfunded public schools and college and university campuses? A tax "freeze" scheme that rewards the wealthy?

Unionists across New York state hit the streets to say: ENOUGH!

They made signs and laced up their sneakers to picket the district offices of key state senators in Plattsburgh, Glens Falls, Brooklyn, Garden City, Smithtown, Syracuse and Buffalo who supported a "bad news" budget proposal that would reward big-moneyed benefactors at the expense of New York's students.

They turned out by the dozens in Lake Placid to send a pointed message to Gov. Cuomo: Get rid of the the Gap Elimination Adjustment. The state has used the GEA to siphon money away from schools in order to close the state's budget deficit. The GEA was meant to be only a temporary fix following the financial crisis of 2008. Now, with a predicted $2 billion surplus, it's time for the state to pay districts back.

Unionists picketing state senate offices chanted "You say GEA, we say Go Away!" to the budget scheme that has diverted as much as $8 billion away from schools over the past six years.

"We're here because Sen. Betty Little supports the Senate spending proposals that would divert money away from our public schools," said Sandra Carner Shafran, a member of the NYSUT Board, on a cold day in Warren County.

In snowy Buffalo, NYSUT members outside the offices of Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, said lawmakers need to restore fairness to the state budget process.

"It's hurting our kids," said Cheryl Hughes, a NYSUT political action coordinator. "We're here because we want to do what's right for our kids and our community and give them the best possible education we can."

Some 600 NYSUT members, administrators, parents and students went to the Middletown district offices of state Sen. John Bonacic and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, chanting "Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! These budget cuts have got to go!"

"We need Albany to wake up and listen," Middletown Teachers Association President Sheila Esposito said.

Students, parents and teachers picketed the Utica district offices of Democrat Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi and Republican Sen. Joseph Griffo to hold them accountable to their promises of increased school aid in their communities.

As the days before the April 1 state budget deadline ticked down, NYSUT members came out in force, filling the governor's phone message machine with demands to end the GEA, restore funding to public schools, colleges and universities, and stop funneling money and tax breaks to wealthy New Yorkers and corporate charter schools and their supporters.

Hundreds of members of NYSUT's Committee of 100 met lawmakers in face-to-face meetings at the Capitol to advocate for full and fair funding for public education.
NYSUT e-activists used the online Member Action Center to send hundreds of webletters on budget issues urging lawmakers to:

  • keep Brooklyn's Downstate Medical Center public and open,
  • restore education aid,
  • oppose the governor's tax cuts,
  • provide funding for public higher education, and
  • provide full, fair funding to schools for students with special needs, libraries and teacher centers.

NYSUT launched a $1.5 million ad campaign slamming proposals that would further handcuff school districts from raising much-needed revenue by linking a property tax "freeze" to the unconstitutional tax cap.

"They chose their big donors over the needs of children, and tax breaks for hedge-funders and financiers over what financially struggling public schools in their home districts need to survive," NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said of the lawmakers who came out in support of the tax freeze proposal. "Our public schools and colleges need a far greater investment from state aid. That's what will help reduce the burden on local property taxpayers."

Playing off New York state's never-ending winter, the ads warned that some lawmakers were putting a "deep freeze" on our future.

The bad news budget "shortchanges public education, but gives breaks to private schools and corporate charters. And, a so-called tax freeze helps the wealthy, while forcing local school districts to make deep cuts, increase class size and lay off teachers and staff," the TV ad told audiences.

The ads ran in all major upstate markets and on Long Island, on both network and cable television. To learn more, go to www.nysut.org/freeze.

NYSUT locked arms with the Alliance for Quality Education to demand "No More Excuses" for the Legislature to provide fair and equitable funding for schools. The coalition agenda sought elimination of the GEA and full restoration of funding at levels established through the 2003 Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, which were abandoned in the 2008-09 fiscal crisis.

"Tell your legislators they can't use that $2 billion to fund tax breaks for millionaires," NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told a thousand students at an AQE lobby day in January. "They need to put that money back into schools."

As a budget deal appeared imminent, AQE brought in actress Cynthia Nixon, a New York City public school parent, to make the case that schools are only looking for what they were promised.

"I voted for Gov. Cuomo," she said, after he promised to make fair and equitable school funding a priority. "I want that Gov. Cuomo back."

NYSUT and powerful partners sent a strong message in the closing days of budget negotiations that New York cannot afford the proposed Education Investment Tax Credit, a back-door voucher proposal that would divert much-needed funds from vital public services and create a special class of education investors with significant influence in shaping the direction of policy and funding.

"Our public schools and colleges have faced devastating budget cuts that have slashed programs and services for our students," said Pallotta. "This back-door voucher scheme would siphon hundreds of millions of dollars away from public schools — which serve the vast majority of our state's children — in favor of big tax giveaways for the wealthy."

Coalition partners at the news conference, which filled the press room in the Legislative Office Building, included the League of Women Voters, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Association of School Superintendents, the School Boards Association and AQE.

NYSUT and its higher education affiliates attracted vast public support with the "Keep New York a state of mind" campaign of interactive online advocacy and print advertising to fight for its Public Higher Education Quality Initiative. The initiative calls for restoration of state aid and a proposed public higher education endowment for New York to provide dedicated funding for faculty and staff going forward.

"The state's support for SUNY, CUNY and community colleges has eroded alarmingly over the last five years," wrote Andrew Sako of Erie Community College Faculty Association, in an op-ed supporting the campaign. "Funding for public higher education in New York state has suffered nearly $2 billion in cuts, driving up tuition and endangering quality, affordable higher education for all New Yorkers. ... If this pattern of underfunding continues, the dream of higher education for many students will be just that — a dream."


As NYSUT United was going to press, state legislators were expected to vote on negotiated budget resolutions in time to meet the April 1 deadline. Visit www.nysut.org for more news and NYSUT's reaction.