“I visited a classroom this year and a teacher had a little sign on her wall that said: ‘The future of the world is in my classroom today,’” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “That is so true.”
Speaking online to 2,679 delegates and 513 alternates to open the 2021 NYSUT Representative Assembly, the Brooklyn-born elementary school teacher said, our job as educators is to ensure a safe space where students can respectfully exchange ideas and grow and learn from each other.
“Through public schools and public higher education we protect and strengthen our democracy,” Pallotta said, “and this is the incredibly important work that you do every day.”
NYSUT’s annual convention brings together local leaders and delegates elected from the more than 650,000 members of its local affiliates. The statewide union embraces teachers, School-Related Professionals, academic and professional faculty in public and private colleges and universities, and health care professionals ranging from school counselors to registered nurses, technologists and faculty at SUNY’s medical centers.
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches well into its second year, the union planned again this year to meet using virtual conferencing technology, in lieu of a prohibitive in-person gathering.
Laura Franz (pictured), president of the Albany Public Schools Teachers Association, greeted delegates on behalf of her local and the Albany Public Schools United Employees, saying, “I cannot wait to welcome you next year in Albany where we will share hugs, tears and laughter together.”
The session began with a moment of silence to commemorate the loss of the late Syracuse TA President Bill Scott, who passed suddenly last week. Moments later, Pallotta opened his president’s address with a moment of silence to honor the lives lost over the past year to the deadly pandemic.
“We have lost friends and colleagues,” he said. “All of us have been impacted by this.”
Pallotta applauded the response by health care professionals members who ran toward the danger, putting themselves and their families at risk, to serve patients in crisis. Meanwhile NYSUT and the AFT scrambled and searched to provide desperately needed personal protective equipment so they could continue.
He also hailed educators’ response to pandemic-related changes that turned the practice of teaching upside down overnight and stressed families and communities around the clock.
“Moving forward — things have to change,” he said. The state should not require districts to offer remote learning; teachers should not be expected to teach in-person and remote students simultaneously; and parents should know their rights, as NYSUT’s ad campaign says, to opt their children out from invalid state standardized testing.
He demanded that the state Legislature and the governor suspend APPR for the 2020-21 school year. “Penalizing hard-working educators during this crazy year is simply the wrong approach,” he said.
Despite the disruption of the pandemic, Pallotta said, NYSUT gained some big wins this year, and one of the biggest was advocating for and achieving priority vaccinations status for members of the union.
Thanks to NYSUT’s ongoing advocacy on behalf of students, educators and working families, we made historic gains in the state budget, he said, including progressive tax reform.
And after a decade of NYSUT advocacy, we will finally have a full phase-in of the Foundation Aid formula for our public schools.
State lawmakers have also committed to eliminating the TAP Gap in public higher education over the next three years. There is also good news for the state’s community colleges including a $14.4 million increase for community college base aid.
On state revenue, “it was never a questions of resources; it was a question of will,” Pallotta said. “New York has enough ultramillionaires and billionaires to increase tax revenue needed to Fund Our Future. And we got it done!”
Years from now, this will be remembered as the year we all learned how to live life at a distance, and continue to function as a society, he said.
“Pause a moment and realize that what you’re doing matters,” he said. “It matters not just for the students you have in your classes today, but also for the future. You are making history.”
In a touching tribute, the union presented its highest honor, The Albert Shanker Award for Distinguished Service, to Jonathan Kozol, one of the most eloquent and outspoken advocates for equality and racial justice in our nation’s schools. Kozol described his journey from academic to activist, and testimonials from NYSUT members shared how his work helped guide their careers and practice.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said, Kozol “inspired us to fight for what’s right for our kids, particularly our most vulnerable.”
Throughout his career spanning more than five decades, Kozol’s groundbreaking books have highlighted the glaring inequalities in education — how race, poverty and a lack of funding divide students into separate and unequal schooling systems.
Kozol thanked NYSUT members for their efforts to “bring joy and justice to the hearts and minds of the children of America,” but noted the fight continues.
“Teachers in NY are facing formidable obstacles these days … an obsessive and unhealthy emphasis on testing and evaluating children solely by the numbers we can plaster on their foreheads,” he said.
Segregation remains a huge obstacle in the quest for equity. “Our schools are obviously separate but they’re also wildly unequal.” he said. “New York, as I’m sure you know better than I, is the most profoundly segregated and unequal state in the nation in terms of education.”
Kozol offered a simple parting message: “Don’t be silent on these issues. Speak and act politically without any inhibitions and add your voices in every way you can to the cries for racial justice in this divided land … Don’t let anyone tell you to be patient. Patience is no virtue when the precious lives of children are at stake. You only get to be a child once.”
After the tribute, Weingarten told delegates that the challenges of the past year have affected all of us in different ways. “Throughout all this, New York’s members have shown up, at the front lines. And for all you do, especially during this nightmare, thank you!”
Election victories last fall helped bring a new focus and funding to address so many current issues like vaccines, safety in education, labor and the economy, she said, “but the dawning we see now did not happen by magic. It was your activism, your willingness to do your part.” Due in large part to NYSUT’s Get-Out-The-Vote efforts, “We won the most important election in history last November.”
One of the beneficiaries of that effort was the new Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate Chuck Schumer.
“I love our state’s teachers,” said Schumer, who always credits NYSUT members for helping him win his first Senate election in 1998. “Teachers are our most important profession and will always have a strong and dedicated ally in Chuck Schumer.”
He said the past 13 months had been difficult, but, “I was proud to get the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed, including $122 billion for K-12 education and $9 billion for New York — the largest single federal investment in education ever.”
New York’s junior senator, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, also sent greetings to the convention: “Despite all the challenges and changes, educators have gone above and beyond to serve students when they needed you most,” she said. “I feel hopeful that we can achieve so much for the people of our state.”
Elections Committee Co-chairs Rod Sherman of Plattsburgh TA and Joe Najuch of Newfane TA announced election results. With no contested races, the following candidates were elected for 2021-2024:
- NEA Retiree Delegates: Lynn Diagostino, Retiree Council 44; William Ninness, Bethlehem Central TA; Sara Rodland, Retiree Council 44; and Catherine Savage-Ninness, Retiree Council 45.
- NEA State Director: Serena Kotch, Cleveland Hill Education Association
- NEA Alternate Director: Sue Raichilson, Buffalo Teachers Federation
- NEA State Delegates: J. Philippe Abraham, UUP-Albany; Cordelia Anthony, Farmingdale FT; Rowena Blackman-Stroud, UUP-Downstate Medical; Denise Breckenridge-Barnes, Buffalo TF; Gwendolyn Brown, Buffalo Educational Support Team; Thomas Brown, UFT.
Convention Committee Chair Sterling Roberson, UFT, reported that resolutions committees had met during the past two weeks, and reported their recommendations to the NYSUT Board of Directors for further consideration.