June 2011 Issue
June 01, 2011

'Kids are sacrificing, the wealthy are not'

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: More than 1,000 educators, citizens and community groups hold a vigil at the capitol to "bear witness" to the pain caused by the state budget cuts. At right is Sharon Carloni, president of the Coxsackie-Athens TA. Photo by Emily Toffenetti.

In dozens of meetings at the state Capitol, activists continue to urge lawmakers to fight the worst proposed cuts to education in a generation through a supplemental budget. Few lawmakers have pledged their support.

At a candlelight vigil at the state Capitol more than a thousand people asked lawmakers to extend the millionaires' tax. That effort was rewarded a week later when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver supported a one-year extension of the millionaires' tax on those with incomes of $1 million or more.

A damaging tax cap proposed by the governor and passed by the state Senate would be disastrous for community colleges, schools and municipalities, say NYSUT, NAACP, state Association of Counties, and other groups. Yet, a tax cap continues to gain support.

The contrast in choices disappoints, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi acknowledged at the May 9 vigil where 600 citizens joined 440 NYSUT activists to bear witness to the state budget pain. The union vows to keep fighting.
Consequences put before lawmakers during the union's Committee of 100 lobbying days include:

• Cuts to career and technology programs, Advanced Placement classes, music, art, libraries and modified sports. Cutbacks in New York City, where 6,000 positions would be sacrificed through layoffs and attrition, will devastate classrooms, United Federation of Teachers members told Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Manhattan. UFT members relayed how increased class sizes and cuts in counseling and social work will have a negative impact. Foreign language and technical course cuts could mean students will not be able to fulfill the requirements to earn Advanced Regents diplomas.

In Yonkers, "We already have 28 kids in a kindergarten classroom with no help of an assistant. Meanwhile, the curriculum demands are being raised and the support is being lowered," Yonkers FT member Deb Collier told an aide to Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, D-Mount Vernon.

• Dozens of school closings include an elementary school in Cape Vincent and the Midlakes Middle School. "This is a shock to our entire community. Putting 11- to 13-year-olds into a high school is against the educational needs of these students," said Jeff Beall, Phelps-Clifton Springs TA.

• North Country locals reported to Sen. Patricia Ritchie, R-Watertown, that all reading recovery teachers in Thousand Islands and two math positions in Watertown are among the 300 educator jobs lost. Other cuts are junior varsity sports and late buses in Copenhagen and the civics, mock trial and state history clubs in Pulaski.

• At the vigil, United University Professions President Phil Smith said preparation for a well-educated workforce and critical health care provided by SUNY hospitals to thousands of people who cannot afford it are endangered.

"Our community was horrified that the state even thought about 100 percent defunding of its university hospitals," Kathy Southerton of the Stony Brook Health Sciences Center UUP chapter told Assemblyman Steven Englebright, D-Setauket. While $60 million was restored to Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse and Stony Brook Health Science Center, it is still below what the teaching hospitals need, Southerton said.

The Professional Staff Congress noted how the City University faces additional cuts from the New York City mayor. Just one example — the entire graduate studies and research department at CUNY's Brooklyn College could be eliminated.

"We're already cut by $12.3 million from the state. Anything additional will cripple those programs that are already deeply wounded," PSC President Barbara Bowen told Assembly Education Chairwoman Cathleen Nolan's staff. The Queens Democrat's support for public education "at all levels, means there is still hope for us," Bowen said. Nolan is among those who support the continuation of a higher income tax bracket for the wealthiest New Yorkers.

Those arguments made a difference. "We should not give a special handout to multimillionaires and billionaires while our children's futures are in jeopardy," Silver, D-Manhattan, said when asked why he decided to push for a millionaire's tax.

NYSUT has provided constant pressure on lawmakers to do the right thing. Rallies, vigils, ads, postcards, letters and constant lobbying told lawmakers: Don't Erase Our Progress.

Funding restorations were minimal. Close to 16,000 positions statewide are expected to be eliminated through layoff or attrition.

"This is a failure of the state to meet its obligation to students ... and working women and men are being sacrificed to give tax cuts to the very wealthy," Iannuzzi said.

In addition to a supplemental budget and extension of the millionaires' tax, NYSUT suggests:

• a two-year smoothing of pension payments as an option to deal with a spike in employer pension costs;

• an early retirement incentive;

• allowing districts to finance energy efficiency retrofits, overall building construction and staff training through low- or no-cost financing through a state authority;

• requiring the New York Power Authority to accept school district applications; and

• allowing BOCES to contract with out-of-state school districts.

"We need everyone across the state to tell their lawmakers how this budget hurts. We need to counter the messages from those who want tax cuts for the wealthy," said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT's executive vice president.