contract sport

UFT and city begin contract talks amid questions over pay, ATRs

The highly anticipated contract negotiations between the teachers union and the city are officially off and running.

In anticipation of the UFT contract’s October 31 expiration date, officials from both sides met yesterday to begin the negotiation process. The negotiations are colored by the city’s dismal financial projections and the upcoming mayoral election — the UFT has yet to endorse a candidate for mayor. They are also UFT president Michael Mulgrew‘s first significant challenge, and are likely to be a factor when he comes up for election in the spring.

Though both sides have signed confidentiality agreements allowing them to keep mum when the press pushes for details, neither has been entirely silent about changes they’d like to see made to the contract.

Chancellor Joel Klein has made no secret of his desire to see the Absent Teacher Reserve drained. The pools currently holds 1,695 teachers who previously worked in schools that have been closed. Though they remain on the city’s payroll, they do not have full-time teaching positions. The point of tension between Klein and the UFT is how to drain it.

On Wednesday, the first day of school, Klein reiterated his support for Chicago’s model, which allows teachers who’ve been laid off to spend one year searching for a new spot in the school system while receiving their regular salaries. At the end of that year, those who haven’t landed new positions are forced to move on.

In 2008, when a report by the New Teacher Project drew attention to the cost of the ATRs, then-UFT president Randi Weingarten responded by saying that the city should freeze hiring until all of the excessed teachers had found work.

With the hiring freeze in place and the reserve pool shrinking, union insiders and budget analysts say that the union might be willing to take up the issue. A recent report that the city has allocated 4 percent salary increases for teachers over each of the next two years has fueled speculation that the new contract will trade higher pay for layoffs within the ATR pool.

Delivering pay raises to teachers will not be the easiest move for the city to make right now.

“Personnel costs are the biggest single piece of the city budget and it’s been a growing piece,” said Independent Budget Office spokesman Doug Turetsky.

According to the IBO, in 2003, wages for city employees were 53 percent of the city’s budget. In the current fiscal year, as the city struggles to cut costs, wages are projected to be over 60 percent of the budget.

The UFT’s contract negotiations come after other unions have won pay raises from the city, possibly establishing a pattern for its own bargaining.

“The basic pattern was set when the economy wasn’t as grim,” said Charles Brecher, executive vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission. “The city is going to have to reconsider this and break the pattern,” he said.

Brecher said his organization will release a report in early October with a set of recommendations for what the city should seek in the contract negotiations.

“I think the concern is that some of the non-salary issues get taken up in a serious way,” he said, adding that merit pay and financial incentives to attract math and science teachers ranked high on the Commission’s list of hoped-for changes.

Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, detailed his own policy suggestions in an article in City Journal, in which he called for abolishing teacher bonuses and shorter contracts in select schools.

Another issue that often dominates union contract negotiations, pension plans, was taken up by the UFT and the city this summer. In a deal reached in June, they agreed to roll back pension benefits for newly hired employees and, in exchange, scrapped the two work days before Labor Day that were added to the work year in the last contract negotiation.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.