The Vestal Teachers Association has not had a new contract in two years. School board members were refusing to budge from their proposed zero percent increases across the board, much less discuss a contract that supports great teachers. For the TA negotiating team, it was like talking to a brick wall.
"If the people you're negotiating with don't want to listen, you have to change the people you're negotiating with," said Joe Herringshaw, Vestal TA president.
Vestal TA members went to work — one among many NYSUT locals that, in May, helped new, more supportive members get elected to their school boards and helped 98 percent of school budgets pass.
The Vestal school board has nine members with three seats elected each year. This year, an additional seat was up for grabs after a board member resigned.
"We found four teacher-friendly and labor-friendly candidates," Herringshaw said.
Working with the Vestal Paraprofessionals Association, led by Ruthie Fitzgerald, the Vestal unionists prepped the candidates on the issues and organized petition-signings for them. They held a meet-the-candidates night with union leadership; printed get-out-the-vote postcards; and distributed yard signs emblazoned with the VTA logo and the names of the candidates. They sent out fliers in neighborhoods and used NYSUT regional office phone banks.
The Vestal TA-supported candidates won all four seats.
Newburgh's union-endorsed candidates also swept the top four spots, by margins of 2 to 1, among 14 people running for school board seats in the Hudson Valley city.
"It is a beautiful thing when you can see democracy work, right before your eyes," said Art Plichta, president of the Newburgh TA.
"The commitment and effort of our members proves that our votes matter," Plichta said. "There was a clear mandate for change and the district needs to heed it."
In western New York, Kenmore TA supported Jill O'Malley, an Erie Community College faculty member whose husband teaches in the district, and Annemarie Gibson, a Hamburg TA member who lives in Kenmore. Both are NYSUT members. O'Malley came to the union for support, and "it was a natural fit," said KTA President Peter Stuhlmiller.
Gibson was a found gem.
"We were at Committee of 100 in a meeting with Assemblyman Sean Ryan," Stuhlmiller recalled. One colleague in the crowded office stood out. "She was assertive, but respectful, and very articulate," he said. "She knew the issues and it turned out she lived in the district. My VP nudged me and said, 'Oh, wouldn't she be a good candidate for our board?'"
They convinced Gibson to run. "It's a no-brainer when you can connect with good people who can hit the ground running," Stuhlmiller said. He cited rebates from VOTE-COPE and collaboration with the Ken-Ton School Employees Association as crucial to the big win.