A year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York hard, placing people’s health, safety and future at risk.
One of the things we’ve learned is that COVID-19 does not affect all people and communities equally. In fact, the pandemic has only amplified existing societal inequities between needy rural and urban schools and wealthier suburban districts.
Regardless, throughout the crisis, public schools and institutions of higher education have remained the hubs of their communities by providing meals to students and their families, child care to essential workers and both in-person and remote learning to students.
The state budget debate roiling Albany this year seeks to solve the puzzle of how school districts can afford to continue to lead and to educate in these challenging times.
“Our response to COVID-19 requires programs, systems and resources we’ve never had before,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
“To do it safely requires more revenue from federal and state sources.”(See article, page 3.) Two words The governor’s executive budget proposal that kick started this year’s budget debate in January relies on an amount of federal COVID-19 relief funding still to come.
But it also turns on whether the federal money will “supplement” or simply “supplant” state funding.
“The use of significant federal funds as a one-time boost to cover cuts in state support would set public schools up for long-term harm,” said Pallotta.
These cuts in state aid disproportionately hurt poorer districts that rely on it more than wealthier districts.
NYSUT legislative reps and volunteer activists continue to press for state revenue enhancements — in addition to the federal aid. On the table are bills that would create a tax on billionaires’ speculative wealth; higher tax brackets for incomes above $5 million, $10 million and $100 million; a pied-á-terre tax on luxury second homes; and a repeal of the Trump tax cuts that benefited only the wealthy. The union supports maintaining protections for small business.
The state owes school districts $4 billion in Foundation Aid for 2021–22. The executive’s proposed growth in overall School Aid funding of $2.1 billion is deceptive in that it would use federal funds to replace the state-funded $1.1 million “Pandemic Adjustment” from this year. Again, NYSUT urges the Legislature to reject the plan to use federal education funds to subsidize state cuts.
NYSUT also is fighting a proposal to use federal funds to lump together expenses that previously have been dedicated for a variety of programs such as BOCES, Career and Technical Education, English language learners (ELLs), transportation services and reimbursements to school districts.
The new “Services Aid” would eliminate 11 aid categories and establish competitive block grants in their place. It would further reduce state aid levels to districts.
After years of underfunding and the state’s withholding of 20 percent of funds for most of the past year, this budget does not provide the funding needed to ensure that SUNY and CUNY are well positioned to help New York recover; students are losing access to the programs they need to prepare for the workforce.
NYSUT continues to advocate for an investment in SUNY and CUNY, including elimination of the TAP Gap, and funding to help community colleges deal with enrollment fluctuations as a result of the pandemic.
NYSUT urges the Legislature to maintain the $250 million in existing community school funds set-aside from Foundation Aid and to provide new funding of $100 million in Categorical Aid.
The executive proposal to create internet service for $15 per month (for families that qualify) is a start, but for a growing number of families, $15 per month is still too much. The union is pushing for passage of the E-Learn Act, a bill to provide internet access to those living in temporary housing.
The union is advocating for bills to limit mandatory overtime for homecare nurses, to establish safe staffing standards in acute care facilities and nursing homes; to ensure mental health professionals are available in schools; and to ensure a school nurse in every building.
NYSUT backs bills to provide an annual increase to the school aid adjustment for the special institutions serving preschool-age and schoolage children with disabilities, and to ensure the long-term survival of these vital educational settings.
NYSUT seeks to restore the 30 percent cut from last year’s budget, and to restore funding that was zeroed out in this year’s executive proposal; and urges restoration to the 2007–08 level of $40 million in this time when the centers are needed more than ever.
Getting the work done
We always say, face to face is the best way to advocate and organize, but it’s not the only way. Last year, the pandemic forced the union to scramble and improvise a new way to lobby lawmakers. This year, we’ve got it down.
The annual Committee of 100 — usually an intense two days of riding buses, climbing stairs and crowding into small offices — instead started with a huge Zoom briefing for hundreds of volunteer activists late in February and continued with scores of smaller online meetings that extended throughout the first two weeks of March.
Same thing happened on a smaller scale with higher education lobby week Feb.
16–19 and other programs focused on BOCES Feb. 22–26, community colleges Feb. 25, special schools Feb. 8–12 and community schools Feb. 5. They continue.
- Committee of 100: March 1–12
- SRP Lobby Day: May 4
- Health Care Lobby Day: May 11