When the people elected to serve your community won't listen to you, it's time to elect some new people.
"We have had incredible difficulty with the board of education this year," said Michelle Licht, president of the Williamsville Teachers Association outside Buffalo. "They have continually ignored concerns brought by us and by other constituency groups in the district."
The union held a huge rally in April that was attended by more than 300 people to protest the lack of response from the current five-member board and to drum up support for making changes. The union was looking for partners who could help advance the quality of education in the district. Demanding "honesty, integrity and transparency," Licht said, the union actively sought interested candidates.
The local asked school board candidates to answer questionnaires on the issues, and invited them to meet for interviews with a union task force. With three seats up for election, the task force voted to endorse three candidates, including one incumbent. One of the newcomers, Mark Mecca, is a school psychologist and a member of the Buffalo Teachers Federation and NYSUT.
This is how a union can effect change. All three won, and a problematic school board turned into a panel dominated by a majority of people who are aligned with union issues. NYSUT locals have all the tools to repeat this success all over the state.
"Between the picket in April, ordering T-shirts for our members, and the school budget and board candidate campaign, we used every cent of our $15,000 VOTE-COPE rebate," said Licht, referring to the up-to 40 percent of a local's voluntary political contribution that it can draw for local political action.
"We couldn't have done it without the hard work of our members and their support of VOTE-COPE. We did two robocalls (with the regional office), two mailings, lawn signs, palm cards and car magnets," she said. The crucial element was having feet on the street.
"On the day of the vote, members stood outside the polling location all day and talked to residents about our candidates and the need to change the board," Licht said.
Similarly, statewide, more than 90 percent of hundreds of union-backed candidates won seats on school boards this May.
In Newburgh in the Hudson Valley, the local union, which is led by newly elected President Stacy Moran, turned around a hostile school board by winning two of three seats up for election. The third seat was lost by a mere 20 votes. In the previous election, the union had endorsed and elected all four of the available seats, so now six of the nine positions are held by community leaders who value public education. They include a few parents, a 40-year veteran teacher and administrator, a retired superintendent and an architect.
Wanted: Good candidates
All too often, the debate on education policy is dominated by those with no experience as educators, and NYSUT members need the voices of those who understand firsthand the difficulties facing schools and universities to be heard in state and federal government, said Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta.
Pallotta called this spring for the union to help find better candidates to challenge ineffective incumbents. To prepare for the challenges ahead, the state and country need a more diverse set of elected officials who represent the interests of working people, he said.
So, NYSUT has begun working with groups, such as the Working Families Party, to build a pipeline for progressive candidates — including women, people of color and members of local union organizations.
"We're going to use the thousands of local offices — village boards, town boards, school boards — to create a farm team of local leaders and help position them to run for higher office down the road," Pallotta said at NYSUT's convention in Buffalo. "In 2015, our goal is to hold candidate recruitment events in every corner of the state."
It's already started.
As part of a new "Pipeline Project," the New York state Working Families Party joined with NYSUT and political activist Zephyr Teachout for a series of events in June on why educators should run for office. The plan is to help teachers across the state learn more about what it takes to run for office — and win. Additional events will be scheduled for the fall.
It all comes down to finding people willing to walk the walk.
The 2014 state Teacher of the Year Ashli Dreher, a member of the Lewiston-Porter United Teachers, was at a school rally in her home district of Grand Island this spring when she learned the Grand Island TA was still looking for a candidate for school board.
Local President Mike Murray "called me the very next day," she said, "and I was pretty much off and running with palm cards, going door to door, running phone banks, sending post cards," she said, She did everything right, but with seven candidates vying for three seats, she came up just a little bit short, although her two running mates won. It's not over, she said.
"Next year there are two seats open, so I will run in 2016."