Panel of union critics say de Blasio lost big on the UFT contract

What the city and the United Federation of Teachers have hailed as a historically collaborative agreement adds up to little more than giveaways for the teachers union, critics argued at a panel event on Monday morning.

As a result, panelists said, a new contract for teachers reflects plenty of missed opportunities for the de Blasio administration.

“It’s likely to have no net benefit for kids at all,” said Dan Weisberg, the city’s former education labor chief who now regularly pans the city as vice president at TNTP, an education consulting and research organization.

The criticism is unsurprising, since the event featured pundits who often spar with the UFT over how to hire, fire and pay public school teachers. But it is a reminder that the contract will continue to be closely scrutinized, especially as its most ambitious initiatives begin to transition into reality this summer and fall.

The discussion came nearly two weeks after UFT members approved the contract by a three-to-one margin. And the contract has been praised for its emphasis on professional development and teacher retention, including from most of the city’s elected officials and State Education Commissioner John King.

Public opinion polls, meanwhile, suggests that New Yorkers are relatively ambivalent toward the contract.

Under the deal, teachers will see their salaries increase by 19.5 percent over the next four years. The raises include two 4 percent bumps that other city workers received in 2009 and 2010, as well as pay that UFT members would have accumulated had those raises been in place during those years.

Nicole Gelinas, a columnist and a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that hosted the event, said the choice to provide all of the retroactive pay means that Mayor Bill de Blasio will have a harder time funding other government programs.

“Is this really part of a progressive agenda, in that it takes resources away from infrastructure investments and from the city’s ability to spend on social programs and even basic public services?” said Gelinas.

Perhaps the nicest thing said about the contract came from Charles Brecher, the research director for the Citizens Budget Commission. He agreed that de Blasio didn’t have to give the retroactive pay, but noted that the way the city delayed and spread out the payments made the deal more affordable than it they could have been.

“If you’re going to do it, this was a pretty good way to do it,” Brecher said.

The contract deal also creates new positions that will allow some teachers to earn more in exchange for taking on additional responsibilities, a bonus program for teachers in hard-to-staff schools, and changes to school schedules to increase time for teacher training.

Weisberg and Jenny Sedlis, head of StudentsFirstNY, one of the event’s sponsors, said that the contract wasn’t as ambitious as de Blasio and Mulgrew have made it sound. The hard-to-staff initiative, for instance, gives $5,000 bonuses to teachers working in schools with difficult student populations, but it isn’t targeted at recruiting the school system’s top teachers, Sedlis said.

Sedlis also criticized the union’s role in deciding which teachers and schools will get selected for some of the pay perks outlined in the contract, since the UFT and the city each have veto power over those decisions.

“It appears that UFT leadership will get to select which teachers get bonuses,” Sedlis said, referring to the hard-to-staff initiative.

De Blasio and union President Michael Mulgrew have touted their shared vision for education policy as being central to the deal, which de Blasio has said will “transform” the city’s public education system. The friendliness between City Hall and the teachers union stands in stark contrast to their toxic relationship during the final years of the Bloomberg administration, when negotiations over a contract and teacher evaluations stalled.

Weisberg, who left the department in 2009, said that the relationship was less contentious earlier on in Bloomberg’s tenure. But he said disagreement between labor and management is healthy and suggested that the city’s current relationship with the UFT was too cozy.

“You can have a tense relationship, a sometimes adversarial relationship, and a productive relationship,” Weisberg said. “But in order to do that, you have to be willing to have some tough digs, some tough arguments.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to the criticism. But Mulgrew shot back at the policies supported by the the think tank that co-hosted the event.

“If we followed the advice the Manhattan Institute, the city’s public schools would have closed long ago,” he said in a statement.

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