Local unions are partnering with NYSUT, using phone banks in regional offices, voter data from NYSUT's records department, and postcards and materials available to leaders, to get voters to the polls, pass their local school budgets and elect supportive members to their school boards.
School communities across the state, except for the "Big 5" urban districts of New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Yonkers, vote on their budgets and elect school board members on May 19. (Voters in Buffalo elect board members on May 5.)
A number of NYSUT members are candidates for school boards, including 2014 state Teacher of the Year Ashli Dreher in Grand Island and retired former local president James Wickersham in Westhill.
"We encourage all NYSUT members to vote in their communities, and to help get others who support public schools to participate," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee. Volunteer some time to fill out post cards, hang signs or make phone calls. "It's easy, it's gratifying and it's very important," she said.
"Decisions are made by those who show up," said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT executive vice president. "Show up, participate and help make the decision about whether your community invests in your local public schools."
Fewer and fewer school districts are proposing budgets that would exceed the arbitrary and undemocratic tax cap. Three years ago, the first year the property tax cap was in place, 49 districts sought the 60 percent supermajority to exceed their tax levy limits, and 30 succeeded. The number has gone down each year. Last year, 24 districts proposed budgets that exceeded their tax levy limit, and 15 succeeded.
Districts had until April 27 to submit budget proposals and attached tax levies; as of press time, less than 20 were expected to attempt to override the cap. Tioga, in the Southern Tier, is one of them.
"The union is trying to get the Yes vote out," said President Dave Reese of the Tioga Teachers Association. They are using NYSUT's budget resources and coordinating signs and posters in the community, he said.
The tax cap number varies by district and depends on several factors, including the previous year's rate of inflation. With a 1 percent cap, Tioga's board is seeking a 30 percent tax levy increase. It needs it.
"Our district has a $902,000 budget deficit (pre-state budget) primarily due to a $22,000,000 loss of Foundation Aid and a state budget that focused on Gap elimination, which does not give us much help," Reese said. Teacher salaries in Tioga rank 517th out of 587, according to school data compiled by NYSUT. Still, it ranks 7th of 432 upstate districts on the Achievement Index, which compares a district's academic performance with its socioeconomic status.
Any tax levy in double digits faces a tough test, and Tioga will be up against it. If it goes down, the district will have an option to revise and resubmit, or revote on the same budget. The penalties for failing are truly daunting: If a district fails to pass a budget, its tax levy cannot increase at all — zero percent.
NYSUT is appealing a recent decision by State Supreme Court Justice Patrick McGrath to dismiss the union's lawsuit challenging the tax cap and tax freeze.
NYSUT lawyers maintain the lower court was constrained by judicial precedents they believe will get closer scrutiny in the appellate courts. The union strongly believes the property tax cap and tax freeze are undemocratic and undermine local control of schools.
BE SURE TO VOTE
On May 19, you can make the difference between your local schools — and your local students — winning or losing. So make sure you go to the polls and vote YES on your local school budget, and make sure your family, friends and co-workers go to the polls and vote YES, too!