The Carmel community in Putnam County had always supported its schools, but in the last couple years things took a strange turn.
In May 2021, the budget went down on the first vote, and in the run up to a second vote the debate went off the rails.
The June meeting on a revised budget opened with a public comment session that went on for hours. Many of the speakers didn’t even address the numbers. They only wanted to talk about “critical race theory,” an esoteric grad school concept that has been misrepresented by conspiracy theorists as political indoctrination of young students on racial issues. The school board leadership asserted unequivocally that critical race theory is not a part of the district’s curriculum.
Then a Carmel parent went viral. A video of the woman’s histrionic rant at the meeting blew up on social media. It was highlighted on Fox News and covered in The New York Times. She accused the district of “emotionally abusing” the kids with its teaching.
In the wake, anti-schools voters defeated the revised budget on the second vote, and the district had to go to a contingency plan that forced painful cuts in programs and staff.
This year, the Carmel Teachers Association was ready.
“We pulled out all of the stops with three mailings, phone calls, robocalls and text messages, lawn signs, and one-to-one meetings with members,” said President Lisa Jackson. “We saw the highest voter turnout in Carmel in the past 50 years!”
Two of the three union-endorsed candidates won, and the third open seat went to an incumbent.
Importantly, voters approved the 2022–23 budget on the first try.
Culture wars try to divide us
The culture wars invaded school board politics throughout New York this spring as citizens voted on school budgets and elected board candidates May 17.
Amid the relentless divisiveness and conspiratorial rhetoric, voters clearly looked to their teachers and staff for guidance.
In Baldwinsville, Onondaga County, board elections reflected a rift that began with questions about books and values.
Last year, a group of parents rose up to condemn certain books available in classrooms and school libraries. They demanded that the school board ban a number of books, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, All Boys Aren’t Blue and All American Boys.
Educators and other parents defended the literature, saying that parents have a right to restrict access for their own children, but not to deny access to all readers.
More broadly, however, these literary critics called for an end to social-emotional learning and any discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“The real issue came down to people who were following this rhetoric of parent involvement in schools and curriculum, and trying to micromanage what is taught and how it is taught,” said Beth Chetney, president of the Baldwinsville TA.
“It represented a real shift from some parents supporting teachers and the profession, to wanting to be drivers of what should be taught.”
The BTA worked with the Baldwinsville Educational Support Professional Association, led by Patricia Speach, and a grassroots group of supportive parents to respond. They knocked on doors, distributed fliers and used social media to back three pro-education candidates.
At the same time, a group of parents who called some books in school “pornographic” and accused teachers of indoctrinating students supported at least two other candidates.
Public Schools Unite Us
On Election Day, voters listened to the educators, and the three union-backed candidates swept in.
It occurred from one end of the state to the other.
In Brentwood, the largest school district on Long Island, voters have seen their share of anti-public education debates over the years. This year, the Brentwood TA, headed by President Kevin Coyne, led a surge of public school support in the community to defeat the long-time anti-union president of the school board.
Coyne saw unprecedented activism with more than 500 members working to support a slate that included one of their own colleagues. They knocked on doors and phone banked over four weekends leading up to the vote.
“NYSUT’s commitment to help locals through VOTE-COPE grants was essential to our success,” he said. “There is no better ingredient to organizing, building and maintaining the labor movement than the sweet taste of victory.”
In Western New York, voters in several districts— including Orchard Park, Grand Island and Williamsville — also rose up in unprecedented solidarity with NYSUT local unions to assert their communities’ values and reject divisiveness.
Through NYSUT’s statewide “Public Schools Unite Us” campaign, “we saw a wave of pro-public education school board members elected who we know will prioritize students at every board meeting,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
“Strong boards of education that focus on what unites us instead of what divides us are essential to allow students, educators and families to put public schools at the center of their communities.”
More than 1,600 volunteers helped get out the vote this year, making more than 62,000 phone calls to their neighbors and knocking on 5,600 doors in their communities. Residents elected 86 percent of candidates endorsed by local unions and approved 99 percent of budgets.