Editor’s Note: Kathy Zahler is president of TST BOCES and Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.

She often writes about the nexus of education and politics on her blog, Dryden Daily KAZ.

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Statewide, Governor Cuomo’s approval rating is 50 percent. It’s safe to say that among the several hundred parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members in attendance at the March 19th “Because We Care” rally at Lansing Middle School, that number hovered closer to zero.

The rally in Lansing was one of dozens around the state planned for this budget season to protest Cuomo’s linkage of school funding to teacher evaluations and charter school numbers, among other proposed changes in state education.

Other issues on the floor included eliminating the gap elimination adjustment (the money removed from every district’s state aid allocation to help offset the state’s revenue shortfall) and phasing out standardized tests as a means of measuring students, teachers, schools, and districts.

Many of the participants wore red t-shirts reading “Respect Public Education: It Works.” Signs read “Education Cuts Don’t Heal” and “Your ZIP Code Should Not Dictate the Quality of Your Education.” One presenter wore a t-shirt with a picture of Governor Cuomo and the word WRONG.

The Political View

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton started the evening off with bad news about the budget. Although the Senate and Assembly proposals for education were fairly close at $1.9 and $1.8 billion, reality had sunk in, and the money for that large an increase was simply not there. A more likely number was perhaps $1.4 billion. “We’re intentionally broke,” said Lifton, citing the recent cutting of taxes and failure to use the surplus or cash settlements from major financial forms to fund education. “In reality, we’re a wealthy state.”

She went on to say that there is “no political will in Albany” to impose a small tax on New York’s wealthiest citizens to increase school funding, and that the governor is “digging in his heels” on his proposed changes. Court decisions such asSilver v. Pataki (2004) give the governor tremendous power over the budget, and the legislature is disempowered. Although there were cheers from the audience for the idea of a complete government shutdown, Lifton warned that in such a case, no one who works for the state in any capacity would get paid. She deplored the “brinksmanship” that has brought the state to such a point.

Joseph Sempolinski represented Congressman Tom Reed’s office at the event and earned a laugh when he pointed out that the governor has “produced a unity we don’t often see.” Calling public education “the backbone of democracy,” he opined, “If you’re going to make educational policy, listen to the people who do it every day.”

Funding Inequities

Irene Stein, chair of the Democratic Rural Conference, spoke about her conference’s focus on school funding inequities, saying that “Every child needs the same pathway and ladder to a successful life.” Her concerns were echoed by Jeffrey Evener, who appeared both in his roles as the principal of Lansing Middle School and the Mayor of the Village of Groton.

“Poor students,” Evener said, “bear the brunt of the gap elimination adjustment.” He pointed out that Groton, a high-needs district with 25 percent special education population and 0.531 combined wealth ratio (where 1.0 is average in New York State), had lost $5.9 million to the gap elimination adjustment, leading to cuts in teachers, coaches, mental health services, and academic intervention services for students falling through the cracks.

Blaming the Schools

Don’t blame the schools for high costs, chided ICSD School Board Member Brad Grainger, pointing to the mandates that both state and federal government have piled on schools without offering a means to fund them. “We expect our government to be our partners, not our critics,” he added.

“The governor,” said Chris Pettograsso, superintendent of Lansing Central School District, “should thank us for our resiliency.” She insisted that it was not true that schools were failing; teachers were still teaching against all odds, with less and less support.

Jamie Dangler, Vice President for Academics of United University Professions and a board member of NYSUT, got a huge round of applause when she listed the ways in which she believed the governor was wrong, especially in his denigration of professional educators. “We’re educators,” she reminded the governor. “We’re willing to educate you to do what’s right.”

“Teachers are not the enemies of education,” said Trumansburg parent and teacher’s aide Jody Latini. “Poverty is the enemy of education… Teachers are our best hope in combatting the enemies of education.”

Testing

Many in the room had objections to standardized testing—the amount of it, the use of it to rate teachers and schools, and the connection to publishing giant Pearson. “Support limitless learning, not endless testing!” cried Lansing Faculty Association president Stacie Kropp to loud applause.

Local Control

Keeping education local and out of the hands of politicians and profiteers was a theme throughout the evening. TST BOCES District Superintendent Jeffrey Matteson pointed to the history of America’s 373 years of public education and said that local control was worth preserving. Quoting Woodrow Wilson, he insisted that “not all change is progress,” and he ended by asserting, “I don’t want my granddaughter’s education subject to the whims of those seeking to make a profit off of her.”

Sarah Vakkas, Director of Instruction for Trumansburg Central Schools, thought that the governor was misconstruing his obligation. “Instead of feeling responsible for students,” she said, “the governor needs to feel responsible for funding education.”

Director of Curriculum Adam Bauchner of Dryden Central Schools pointed to some bright spots in current educational trends, but he admitted that they meant little when Dryden was forced this year to propose a budget with zero dollars for classroom supplies. “Decisions about how we want to use our dollars,” he said, “are not aligned to our values.”

Fighting Back

Along with a petition drive, organizers of the evening’s event suggested other ways to fight against the governor’s budget proposal. “We need to be brave,” said Adam Piesecki, president of the Ithaca City School District’s Teacher’s Association. “The future is counting on us.” One parent invited the crowd to join the anti-GEA movement by signing up with SOS Election Boosters on Facebook (www.facebook.com/SOSelectionboosters).

“Resist, refuse, and rebel!” cried Trumansburg Board of Education member John White to loud cheers from the crowd. And Lee Howard Adler from Cornell’s ILR School echoed that emotion by telling the audience to take to the streets, with picket lines at State Senators’ offices and coalitions of police, fire, and other public employees.

The event ran long, and there was no time for questions, but everyone left with a little orange slip encouraging them to call their state senators, connect to NYSUT, talk to friends and colleagues, and contact the governor.

The constitutional deadline for the budget is April 1. Speaking for myself, I’m more confident in my picks for the Final Four than I am in the likelihood of an on-time budget in this contentious year.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.