"This is a beautiful sight," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, looking out over the more than 800 grassroots activists who gathered for a briefing on state budget negotiations on the eve of NYSUT's premier lobby day.
"This room is packed! This is what we are and who we are — a strong, wonderful and beautiful union!" he said.
The migration known modestly as the Committee of 100 had landed in Albany, eager to advocate for public schools, colleges and health care as lawmakers crunch the final numbers for the state's 2016–17 spending plan.
Members fighting for issues affecting their lives, and those they educate and care for, is a proud NYSUT tradition dating back to the mid-1970s, when a group of 100 local leaders came to Albany to fight for pension legislation.
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee thanked the volunteers for "doing what's necessary in leading the way and moving the agenda forward for the organization.
You will model that tomorrow when you have those one-to-one conversations with elected officials."
That they did.
In this annual rite of spring, NYSUT volunteer lobbyists-for-a-day rained real-life stories on legislators who were elected from their own communities. They explained in detail how the decisions made during this state budget process would affect the people who live, work and vote in their districts. They shared how the combination of insufficient state support and the tax cap are killing the future of schools and communities all over the state.
Without the resources our kids deserve, "we're not going to be able to do the things we do that help push our students forward," said Shelly Chizzonite, a NYSUT PAC coordinator from Central New York.
With schools owed more than $4.8 billion in state funding, NYSUT seeks a $2.5 billion increase that would boost Foundation Aid and eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment.
June Smith, a member of Smithtown TA, told lawmakers the state needs "to make everybody whole on Foundation Aid and the GEA — and with the surplus ($5.4 billion), this is the year to do it."
Throughout the day members also demanded restoration of millions of dollars to the SUNY and CUNY campuses and community colleges, and to the SUNY hospitals.
As Suffolk Community College Faculty Association President Kevin Peterman told one member of the Assembly: "Higher education has been starved for years."
As the April 1 state budget deadline approached, lawmakers were working through the two "one-house" budget bills proposed by each house of the Legislature that basically accept, reject or modify the budget provisions in the executive proposal Gov. Cuomo introduced in January.
While many of NYSUT's priorities are addressed, the three proposals differ on many significant points, and the conference leaders were working to reconcile them into a single fiscal plan acceptable to all. But it's not a time for NYSUT members to sit back and wait to see what happens.
"This is the time we really need to ensure, through grassroots activism and advocacy, that the legislators understand how important our priorities are to our members, our students, our patients and our communities," said Pallotta.
"We are on the streets, on the phones and on email, reinforcing our message," he said. "It's crucial."
Indeed, NYSUT members have been marching, attending rallies and picketing in every corner of the state to send an unequivocal message to Albany: We need resources for the public schools and colleges our kids deserve!
Under leaden skies shrouding Buffalo's massive East High School, a group of intrepid unionists and community activists shivered in the March cold for the sake of the kids inside.
East High is one of the "struggling" schools in Buffalo that is now struggling to navigate the state's draconian receivership law, which nullifies local autonomy and reduces accountability. "We don't need receivership," said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore, "we need leadership." He called for state funding to promote community schools as an effective alternative.
The scene in Buffalo was just one of many in a coordinated statewide campaign throughout the day. Parents, students, educators, administrators and community supporters showed steadfast support for public education while urging lawmakers to provide fair and adequate funding for K–12 and higher education, modify the state's undemocratic tax cap, end receivership and fund full-day prekindergarten.
"The main point," said NYSUT political organizer Louisa Pacheco, "is that the community is totally behind our schools!"