state of the union

In retirees, UFT leadership finds loyal — and unusual — support

UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks at the union’s annual retiree luncheon in Florida last week. (Photo: UFT)

At a synagogue in Surfside, Fla., last month, about 40 former teachers gathered for cupcakes, cheesecake, and a PowerPoint presentation by a pair of union representatives from New York. The teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers retiree chapter, and the representatives had been sent by the UFT and New York State United Teachers to pass along information about budget counseling, Medicare, and pet insurance.

Ken Goodman, the UFT Florida retiree chapter leader, called the meeting to order by announcing updates about the following month’s annual retiree luncheon. Buses would pick the members up from Surfside and ferry them to the event in Boca Raton, where UFT President Michael Mulgrew would deliver the keynote address just weeks before his re-election bid.

Despite being out of the classroom — in many cases, for decades — retirees make up a large portion of Mulgrew’s constituency. And because the UFT is one of the only unions in the country to allow retirees to vote in leadership elections, they are powerful. Even when they live far from New York City, the UFT’s 60,000 retiree members staunchly defend the union they helped shape in the 1960s and 1970s, and they volunteer in droves when the union mobilizes its members to support candidates or lobby on education or healthcare.

“We provide a service for those kind[s] of issues for the union, and the union helps us too on the issues we care about,” said Tom Murphy, the head of the UFT’s retiree chapter. He added that, after seeing how engaged UFT retirees remain, the American Federation of Teachers was considering allowing retirees in other locals to vote in union elections as well.

Retired teachers can choose to remain part of the UFT, spending a small portion of their pension on dues. Almost all do. Of the UFT’s 200,000 total members, nearly 60,000 are retirees, and about 8,000 of them live in Florida for at least part of the year. The UFT’s New York office devotes the entire 17th floor of its downtown skyscraper to retiree services. The chapter also has sections in Arizona, California, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Israel.

In Florida, the retiree chapter’s Boca Raton office buzzes with activity. (The union spent $162,538 on rent for the office in 2012.) The staff—most of them retirees themselves—fields phone calls and emails about pensions and health coverage. They reach out to members, alerting them to programming such as beginning French classes.

“We’re constantly giving them information,” Goodman said. “For the most part, our members like to be involved.”

Read the whole series.
Read the whole series.

The union and Democratic politicians also rely on Florida retirees to help them get out the vote. In last year’s U.S. presidential election, UFT members in Florida were active phone bankers, officials say, both for President Barack Obama and Patrick Murphy, who narrowly defeated incumbent Allen West, a Republican, in Florida’s 18th Congressional district. (Murphy also got an assist from West himself, who made a series of inflammatory statements that lost him local support.)

The retirees are sometimes called the “daytime union,” according to Murphy. “We’re available when our in-service working members are not,” he said. “If they need some of us to testify someplace or populate a hearing … many of us are able to do that.”

In addition to helping Obama win Florida last year, retirees contributed to Mulgrew’s 91 percent victory in 2010. Mulgrew would have won easily without their support, however, which suggests that—for now at least—there’s no schism between how retirees and current teachers vote.

But retirees may be among the most inclined to keep the union on its current track.

Once members retire, “the priorities change,” Goodman said. “We want to make sure our benefits are maintained.”

Many of the retirees at the Miami-Dade area meeting in Surfside, happy with those benefits, say they plan on voting again for Mulgrew, who is running as part of the Unity slate. Unity first took power in the 1960s, when many of the current retirees were in the classroom.

“I generally vote Unity … if I like the status quo,” said retiree Gloria Taft, 66, who taught math at I.S. 75 in Staten Island. She said she didn’t know much about the other candidates.

Two groups — Movement of Rank-and-File Educators and New Action — are running slates of candidates to challenge Unity, although only MORE is aiming to unseat Mulgrew. While the two minority parties are likely to gain some seats, they face an uphill battle to win spots in the union’s central leadership.

One reason is that retirees vote at significantly higher rates than active teachers. Nearly half of them voted in 2010, while less than a quarter of active teachers did so. But the number of votes that retirees can contribute is capped, meaning that each vote tends to count for something less than one. Retiree votes were initially capped at 18,000, but the UFT delegate assembly increased that to 23,500 last year in response to growth in both total union membership and the retiree chapter.

The shift drew criticism for reducing the influence of current teachers — who will be more directly affected by policies that the union supports or opposes.

“Should all other voter turnout stay the same, it’s possible that in this election the retirees will account for 50 percent” of the vote, said Sydney Morris, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence. The group encourages its members to become more involved in the union, including pushing them to vote in union elections. It opposed raising the retiree vote cap, arguing that current teachers should have a larger voice than retirees in the elections.

Retired high-school teacher Adrianne Brum “absolutely” will vote this year; she does so in every election. “I pay for that,” she said. She, and many of her peers, praised the UFT for securing good benefits for them and keeping them well-informed about the benefits. Brum and others said those protections are a priority when they vote.

“The union worked very hard to give us the kind of security we do have,” Brum said, adding that critics of teachers unions “think we’re getting away with murder.”

“We put up with much lower pay so we can have these perks,” she said.

Murphy said he also sees retired members concerned about what’s happening in the classroom — particularly the push to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Simon Schlanger, 74, who has been a UFT member for 50 years, also said he was planning to vote for Mulgrew. But though Schlanger, who was a social studies teacher and guidance counselor in the Bronx, cares about how teachers are treated, he said his primary concern was not about his own security.  “It’s making sure the kids get a good education,” he said.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.