Selling the Contract

Making his case, Mulgrew says new contract draws battle lines in "war with the reformers"

PHOTO: Twitter/UFT
Members of the UFT's Delegate Assembly voting to send the proposed contract to the full union membership.

In a candid speech to teachers on Wednesday, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew offered a behind-the-scenes account of the recent contract negotiations with the city and argued that the resulting deal was the union’s best chance at winning a “war with the reformers.”

In an hour-long presentation followed by 40 minutes of questions and answers, Mulgrew promoted the terms of the agreement to the union’s Delegate Assembly, a 3,400-member group of elected teacher representatives. Following a short debate period, where one critic of the plan had his microphone shut off, the assembly agreed to send the proposed contract to the UFT’s more than 100,000 members for a ratification vote.

Speaking in blunt terms, Mulgrew also admitted that the union’s position last year on one controversial part of the new teacher evaluation system was designed to “gum up the works” when it was rolled out this year.

The proposed contract contains several changes to the evaluation system, which the state education commissioner imposed last summer after a long city-union clash over the details. Under the new agreement, teachers would be rated on a rubric of just eight items, down from 22.

A teacher pointed out during the question portion that the union lobbied last year for teachers to be rated on all 22 rubric components rather than just a handful, as the city wanted. At the time, many assumed the union opted for more components because it would give teachers more points to contest if they received poor ratings.

Mulgrew acknowledged as much Wednesday, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Chalkbeat. Members of the press were not allowed into the meeting, which was held in a banquet hall at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

“It was a strategy decision to gum up the works because we knew what their lawyers were trying to do,” Mulgrew said, referring to city officials. “That’s things I don’t get to say in public when I’m doing them, because we knew they had a plan to use the new evaluation system to go after people.”

Mulgrew said Wednesday that the union began to seek changes to the evaluations as soon as de Blasio took office.

“We had a goal that this year would be the first and only year you would work under the new evaluation system,” he told the teachers.

He also defended a part of the deal that would free some schools from certain contract provisions so they can experiment with different schedules or other changes — a plan some union members have criticized as a way to make traditional schools resemble charter schools. But Mulgrew argued that, in fact, the plan is a way to prove that traditional schools can execute innovative ideas that outmatch those of the education “reformers” who typically back charter schools.

“We are at war with the reformers,” he said. He added later, “Their ideas will absolutely destroy — forget about public education — they will destroy education in our country.”

Earlier in the speech, he singled out former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had sought to improve the city school system by increasing choice and competition, opening new schools and charter schools, and tying consequences to student test scores. Mulgrew said Bloomberg had falsely suggested the city could not afford to increase teachers’ pay, but that Mayor Bill de Blasio had worked with the union to find a way to afford the raises.

“By working with this mayor,” Mulgrew said, “we have come up with a creative way to one more time wink at Bloomberg and say, ‘Gotcha.'”

Mulgrew made clear that the union’s top priority in the contract negotiations was securing retroactive raises for its members, who have gone nearly five years without a contract and missed pay increases that most other city labor groups received.

“It is our position — it is not our God-given right, but it is our position — that we deserve those wages. And that’s what we were negotiating for first and foremost,” Mulgrew said.

Officials have insisted that the city can afford the nearly 20 percent pay bump that the proposed contract promises teachers by 2018 only because the union agreed to find significant healthcare cost savings.

So far, little has been said about how the reductions would be achieved. But Mulgrew said Wednesday that one strategy will be an audit to root out ex-spouses of union members who remain on their former partners’ health plans even after they are divorced.

He also said the union has agreed to find $1.3 billion in health-cost savings over the next four years. Then he announced a new incentive for teachers: The city has agreed that any cost savings over that target amount, up to $365 million, “would go directly to city workers in a one-time bonus check.”

The proposed contract also addresses educators in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, who are on the city payroll but lack a permanent school placement. Some teachers expressed concern Wednesday about an expedited termination process for ATRs described in the deal. Mulgrew reiterated that the process would only kick in after two successive principals document an ATR for misconduct. At that point, he said, an expedited hearing makes sense.

“I believe that fast and fair is in the best interest of anyone who has a disciplinary charge against them,” he said.

After Mulgrew spoke and answered questions for most of the meeting, the delegates were given a little less than 15 minutes to debate the proposed contract.

At one point, a teacher who opposed the deal began to argue with Mulgrew, which led to a dispute over speaking time limits. Eventually the teacher called the debate process “absolutely ridiculous and completely undemocratic.”

“Now you’re out of order,” Mulgrew replied, and called for the next speaker to begin talking.

A few minutes later, Mulgrew called a vote to send the contract proposal to the full membership, which he said was “overwhelmingly” approved.

After the meeting, some teachers criticized the union for giving opponents of the deal little time to make their case. Others complained that the union only released a detailed summary of the agreement the day of the meeting, limiting their ability to prepare questions.

“It was almost like a blind vote today,” Michael Kerr, a Brooklyn dance teacher, told Chalkbeat.

Others denounced certain parts of the deal, including the new ATR rules and the way it disburses the retroactive pay in payments spread over several years.

“If the contract expired in 2009, then why should we get the retro pay in 2020?” asked Marie Baker, a Bronx school librarian.

But many teachers said they supported the deal for economic reasons, and because they thought it would make a challenging job more manageable.

“I think it’s an excellent contract,” said Joyce Baldino, a Brooklyn teacher. She said her colleagues also back the deal — especially a provision that allots time during the school day for teachers to collaborate and communicate with parents. “We finally have time to do all the things that we’re already doing as professionals.”

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Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.