Civil Disobedience and NYS School Funding

by Cynthia Kirby

On June 22 I was arrested, along with 21 others, for refusing to move from the steps of the Capitol in Albany. I was there in my capacity as President of the Syracuse City School District Board of Education. Also arrested were Pat Waelder and Tom Seals, both Syracuse Common Councilors.

Tom has worked in law enforcement his whole life, as a military police officer for four years in the Air Force and as a well-respected member of the Syracuse City Police Force for 31 years. His last child is a student in the City Schools, and he takes his responsibility as a member of the Common Council’s Education Committee seriously. Pat Waelder has been involved in social justice work, raising nine children, all graduates of the Syracuse City Schools. She has taught at Onondaga Community College, been a member of the Syracuse Board of Education, and is now a Common Councilor. I was very involved in the Peace movement as a Le Moyne College student from 1968-72, and helped register voters in Mississippi in 1971. After marriage and raising two wonderful daughters, I feel that I now have the time to reconnect with the social justice movement, and I am proud to have been arrested for the sake of the children of the city of Syracuse.

Why then did we all commit this act of civil disobedience?

Irresponsible Action

In June 2003, after an 11- year court battle, the New York State Appellate Court found in favor of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) that all children deserve an adequate education, regardless of where they live. The Court gave the State Legislature until July 30, 2004 to find a solution to school funding, after which the Court would appoint a Special Master to study the issue and recommend changes. On June 22, nearly one full year after the ruling, the New York State Senate and Assembly were prepared to leave Albany for a six-week vacation with neither a budget nor a solution to the CFE lawsuit. This irresponsible action left school districts across the state without any idea of how much state aid they would receive for the 2004-2005 year.

For Syracuse, this is a catastrophe. We faced a $33 million budget deficit. To balance our budget, we would have to lay off 750 staff, approximately 19% of our work force. This would mean no librarians, nurses, guidance counselors, social workers or psychologists; no after school programs or athletics; larger class sizes and fewer teaching assistants. How would we be providing an adequate education to our children under this scenario?

In terms of social justice, children in the City of Syracuse are more likely to be poor, to be refugees, to be minority, or to have special needs than children in other districts. Yet Syracuse is able to spend less per student than 90% of the districts in Onondaga County. Syracuse has a much lower tax base, with only 48% of the property in the city on the tax rolls. The city had already increased its contribution by almost 10% this year alone, showing great courage in increasing the school tax by 9.5%. New York State has a constitutional responsibility to provide our children with an adequate education. Access to quality public education is the right of every child in this state, not just the rich.

We have all witnessed local, state and federal dollars given to corporations who threaten to leave the area in an effort to preserve jobs. Here in Syracuse, balancing the budget would cause the loss of 750 jobs. Where are government offers to save these jobs?

State Government Broken

All of the people who risked arrest on June 22 chose to make as strong a statement as possible that the state government was broken, and that it was hurting children across the state. The group was diverse in age, race, and geography. It included mostly local officials and teachers’ union officials, as well as two state senators. We wanted other New Yorkers to become as outraged as we were that the legislature and the governor were leaving Albany without passing a budget or providing relief to the school districts.

The NYS Taylor law says that if a firefighter, police officer, or a teacher goes on strike, s/he is fined two days’ pay for every day not on the job. The Senate and the Assembly, in a sham reform move, decreed that they would not be paid after the April 1 budget deadline. However, as soon as they do pass a budget, they receive all the pay that had been withheld. I would suggest that they be treated like these other public employees: fine them two days pay for every day the budget is late.

Cynthia has a PhD and teaches in the Computer Studies Department at Onondaga Community College.

Take Action for Education

The civil disobedience action described above was organized by the statewide Alliance for Quality Education (AQE).

Three simple things you can do:
· Call Governor Pataki (518-474-8390), and State Senators Nancy Lorraine Hoffmann (478-0072) and John DeFrancisco (428-7632) to urge them to support a school aid plan that ensures that area schools have the resources they need and that every child in New York State will have an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.
· Visit the AQE website <www.aqeny.org> to generate a free faxed letter to Governor Pataki protesting his inadequate school aid plan.
· Come to the next local AQE meeting on Monday, September 20th, at 6:30 PM at 909 Butternut Street, Syracuse to help plan the campaign.
Contact Parents for Public Schools at 278-4841 or email Bob Cohen at <bcohen@aqeny.org>.