Teachers' union has quiet clout in local votes | Associated Press Writer August 9, 2008

ALBANY, N.Y. - Local school budget votes were expected to be close last May in hard-pressed school districts in Erie County, Albany and Long Island's Massapequa. Tensions were high among taxpayers facing rising gas and food prices and Gov. David Paterson had just recommended a 4-percent cap on growth of New York's highest-in-the-nation property taxes.

But those seeking to pass the budgets had an edge.

The New York State United Teachers union, perhaps New York's most powerful lobbying force, quietly cut $2.3 million in checks to its locals this spring, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group. The union annually sends more than $1 million to districts that expect close budget votes, local taxpayer opposition, or school board candidates who disagree with NYSUT's lobbying goals.

Frequently, it pays off.

Almost $3,000 went to Lancaster, where the budget passed by 298 votes out of 2,298 cast; more than $2,000 went to Albany, where the budget passed by 320 votes out of 4,342 cast; and nearly $5,000 went to Massapequa, where the budget passed by 535 votes out of 5,325 cast.

The results mirrored most of the 92 percent of the state's 700 districts where budgets were approved, raising taxes beyond the rate of inflation. In the Hudson Valley's Arlington school district, the budget was defeated by 341 votes out of 5,101 cast. NYSUT sent $7,254 to that rural district serving 10,400 students.

"Spending a few thousand dollars on a school election is the equivalent of using a Howitzer on a mosquito," said NYPIRG's Blair Horner.

NYSUT and its local unions aren't required to report in state election records how the money was used.

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said the local spending comes from a voluntary $1 assessment on each member's paycheck, or about $20 a year for each of the union's 220,000 active members.

"Some of it gets rebated back to the locals," Korn said. "It's used to support pro-education candidates, for school budget campaigns or local political issues." He said districts with particularly difficult budget votes or adversarial school board candidates can get more. NYSUT's "solidarity fund" could also be tapped if needed for "pro-education candidates and to urge `yes' votes on local school budgets."

NYSUT said the money pays for phone banks where volunteers can blanket a community with phone calls pushing their position, lawn signs and mailings to other NYSUT members who live in the community but work in another district.

Only rarely is there an organized effort on the other side of the issue, and funding like NYSUT provides would be hard to counter in a local school district. The union's local spending augments its annual $1 million TV and radio ad blitz statewide, urging passage of school budgets for their children's' sake because, as one 2006 ad put it, "it's the right thing to do."

The local spending is magnified by the chronically low turnout, about 11 percent statewide, a number so small Gov. David Paterson in June called the votes an inaccurate reflection of the public will.

Usually, unions must detail their spending campaign and lobbying records. For example, those records show NYSUT directly contributed more than $700,000 to legislators and political parties in 2007 and spent more than $1.8 million on lobbying that year.

But school elections are governed instead by education law.

"The fact that the union is spending millions of dollars to push its own interest shouldn't be a surprise. But the public should know that," NYPIRG's Horner said. "The question is, should the public have that information when they go to the polls. The answer is, `Yes."'

"We know what they say (the money's for), but we don't know. It could be to vote `yes' on the budget or for summer barbecues. Who knows?" Horner said.

Last week, billionaire B. Thomas Golisano pledged $5 million to fund state Legislature candidates this fall willing to take on special interests, singling out NYSUT. He estimated, based on dues paid by NYSUT's 600,000 workers and retirees in education and health care, that the union has $60 million worth of clout in Albany, pushing spending that has led to the high property taxes that drive employers away.