If you had any doubt that local union activism could make the difference in school funding, look no further than West Hempstead on Long Island and Mount Vernon in Westchester County.
After a school bond vote had failed in November, the West Hempstead Education Association, led by Barbara Hafner, pulled out all the stops for a revote in March. Volunteers phone-banked relentlessly to pass the $35.5 million revised bond referendum by 1,124 to 985. Reversing the results from the fall, the unionists got it done.
After an eruption of activism from the Mount Vernon Federation of Teachers, led by Jeff Yonkers, in February and March, the community responded with an 80 percent yes vote on a $108 million bond referendum to repair schools and expand programs. In addition to the phone banking and outreach, local members helped with tours of the school buildings prior to the vote throughout February.
It's going to take all that and more on May 17 as districts across the state go to the polls to vote up or down on 2016–17 budget proposals and to elect school board members. Contact your local president if you can help mobilize support for your schools in your community.
"The unfair and undemocratic tax cap law effectively blocks local school districts and municipalities from drawing on local revenue to make up for gaps in state aid," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta.
School districts calculate their local tax levy cap using a number of exemptions and a local growth factor. Some end up higher and some end up lower than the state tax cap number of 0.12 percent, which is tied to the rate of inflation. This year, scores of districts are expected to have a local cap less than zero. At the time this went to press, the state had not yet released official numbers.
To override a tax levy limit, local voters must achieve a supermajority of 60 percent. Many school boards will not even consider proposing a budget that would require them to meet that threshold, Pallotta said.
"Even though we gained a significant boost in state aid this year in the state budget, some local districts will face layoffs and program cuts because of the tax cap," he said.
"We need to fix it."
Buffalo challenge May 3
As a Big Five district, Buffalo does not vote on its budget, but it elects school board members on May 3. With six seats on the nine-member Buffalo city school board up for grabs this year, NYSUT and Buffalo Teachers Federation activists are leading efforts to turn the anti-union board into one that is willing to work with educators to improve the school system. It can turn the city schools around in one day. Stay tuned!