400 people picket education conference

LAKE PLACID – By bus and by car, around 400 people came here Sunday afternoon to protest an education conference held at Whiteface Lodge.

The three-day private conference called Camp Philos started Sunday and will end Tuesday. It is run by Education Reform Now and Democrats for Education Reform, groups that in the past have favored charter schools and tougher teacher evaluations and tenure requirements.

Joe Williams, leader of the conference and executive director of Education Reform Now, said in a press release the event will provide a forum to exchange policy and political ideas among advocacy leaders and politicians.

“One of our goals at the Philosopher’s Camp is to reinvigorate and challenge leaders across the country to prioritize quality, equity, and excellence and to recapture the promise of an education for all schoolchildren,” Williams wrote. “Though there may be some with a different perspective from ours, we encourage all visitors to join us in supporting area businesses while here.”

The conference was closed to the public as well as reporters.

Guests of the conference arrived around noon. A black stretch luxury bus shuttled some guests to the Whiteface Lodge from the two other host hotels. Entry to the education forum cost $1,000. Whiteface Lodge can hold a maximum of 200 people in the conference rooms.

Williams said the conference began with introduction sessions.

“Lots of interaction among the elected officials from around the country,” Williams wrote. “Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu kicked things off.”

Around 12:30 p.m. the first group of “Picket in the Pines” protesters, mostly teachers and parents, began to arrive by car. Many of the people were concerned about public education and angry with the education policies of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who supports the reform groups goals on charter schools and teacher evaluations.

Steve Greenfield of New Paltz drove three-and-a-half hours to Lake Placid. He was one of the first to stand alone in the rain on the roadside in front of the lodge.

“I want those people to see my signs when they arrive,” Greenfield said.

Greenfield, an independent running for school board, said he wants to warn Democrats that the so-called “Democrats for Education Reform” does not have public education’s best interest in mind.

“What they are trying to do here at this conference is leap frog over the whole democratic process,” Greenfield said. “The people who are in this conference are looking to turn education into an investment opportunity.”

Cuomo was scheduled to attend. He was listed on the Camp Philos website as an attendee and billed as the “honorary chairman” of the conference. An administrative official said the governor was unable to arrive in person but sent a recorded video to be watched in his place.

Williams said Cuomo did not cancel his appearance.

“When we last spoke, Gov had committed to having a presence here, whether in person or by video,” Williams wrote by email. “No cancellation. He has several education staffers here and the Governor will appear on the big screen.”

Williams said two people from the governor’s administration were there. Other guests, currently listed on the Camp Philos website, include U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. An earlier list, since removed from the website, included Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, California, and moviemaker M. Night Shyamalan, best known for directing “The Sixth Sense.” Shyamalan recently wrote a book on improving the American education system.

Hundreds of protestors began to arrive at around 1 p.m. Most of them were bused in by New York State United Teachers, the state teachers union, from several different urban areas like Buffalo and Albany. Six or so of those buses were parked in the Howard Johnson’s parking lot next to the Comfort Inn, where a bulk of the protesters were staying. Other unions and educational organizations included the Alliance for Quality Education, United University Professions and the American Teacher Federation. Also picketing were some teachers and parents from the North Country.

“We got members from Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, haven’t seen anyone from Tupper Lake yet, Peru, Plattsburgh and Watertown,” said Don Carlisto, co-president of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association.

Around 4:30 p.m., as the rain began to pick up, wave after wave of picketers walked down Saranac Avenue from the Comfort Inn to the Whiteface Lodge. State police set up on the road, waving cars and picketers through. Leaders of the teachers unions began to speak with a bullhorn and stood on a makeshift crate that served as a podium.

“Can they hear us in there?” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Teacher Federation, refering to the people inside the Whiteface Lodge. “They say they represent the people. The people are outside in the rain. It’s not been a secret the people are going to picket in the pines.”

Weingarten told the Enterprise the governor made the right decision not to attend Camp Philos.

“Who you hang around with is how you will be judged,” Weingarten said.

“No more Cuomo” and “No show Cuomo” chants were led by Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions.

NYSUT President Karen E. Magee said the picket symbolized a growing anger at state education policies.

“I don’t care if it’s rain or snow, sleet, hail – I prefer some sun and dry weather – but it’s irrelevant,” Magee said. “We will be there, and we will continue to fight until we prevail because we know what’s best and there is no negotiation on that.”