Newsroom

UFT president says he’ll fight mayor’s new proposals

More than week after Mayor Bloomberg handed Chancellor Joel Klein a to-do list of items anathema to the teachers union, UFT president Michael Mulgrew is promising a fight.

In an email sent to United Federation of Teachers members this afternoon, Mulgrew said the mayor’s proposals will “damage the schools and the children of this city.” Though the subject matter is well-covered ground, the tone is angrier than usual and there’s a sense that the UFT has been badly burned.

Bloomberg’s announcement, which came mid-UFT contract negotiations, has “raised the temperature” of contract talks,” a source said.

Referring to Bloomberg’s directive to Klein to use test scores in teacher tenure decisions this year, Mulgrew writes that the UFT was already working with the city and the Gates Foundation on a teacher quality study.

“Chancellor Klein was supposed to be our partner in this potentially much more effective approach.”

In the letter, Mulgrew also blames the Department of Education for mismanaging the city’s rubber rooms and pool of excessed teachers, which the mayor has proposed to reduce through layoffs of teachers who’ve been in the pool for more than a year.

He calls Bloomberg’s proposals “simplistic” and “sheer fantasy.”

A response to the letter from DOE spokesman David Cantor follows Mulgrew’s letter.

Dear colleagues:

New York City’s students deserve a high quality education.  What’s more, the students deserve and their parents expect that their mayor and their schools’ chancellor will use their power to enact real reforms and overcome obstacles to learning.

Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg’s recent speech in Washington, D.C. did nothing to help meet these goals.

As New York prepares to compete for federal “Race to the Top” incentive funds, all stakeholders in the public schools should be working together to best position us to win this precious new resource. But Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have chosen to focus on and promote fake reforms, simplistic “solutions” and sheer fantasy as the answer to our schools’ problems.

Let’s start with some of the issues you as educators know full well.

ATRs: Hundreds of our teachers are now working in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), a pool of educators whose schools or programs have been downsized or closed.  There is no better example of the Department of Education’s mismanagement and failed leadership than this group of dedicated and experienced teachers.

When the ATR pool was created we warned the DOE that faulty implementation of the process would leave hundreds or even thousands of teachers without permanent assignments.  Our warning went unheeded and our prediction has been proven correct. Recently we joined with the DOE to create a policy that in similar circumstances was remarkably successful – the assignment of teachers displaced by the reorganization of alternative high schools to a school with vacancies, subject to approval by both the teacher and the principal.  The DOE has not only rejected our recommendation to expand this to all districts, it has not made substantial efforts to place ATRs;  it has refused to schedule school interviews for them;  it has also demonized them in the press, making it difficult for many to find permanent jobs.  Meanwhile, the department’s continued hiring of new teachers, including paying bonuses to recruiters, has made a bad situation even worse.

Now, when the DOE’s own data has shown dramatic increases in class sizes, it is unconscionable that the system allows over 1,000 teachers now working as substitutes rather than to help bring class sizes down.  This is an inexcusable waste of human capital and mismanagement of resources.

Rubber Rooms:  If the DOE’s ATR policy is the leading example of management ineptitude, the so-called “rubber rooms” are a close second.

We work with children, and we agree that we must err on the side of caution to protect children.  Accusations may lead to people being temporarily removed from their schools while the investigation takes place. But no reasonable observer could find any reason other than gross mismanagement for leaving teachers to sit in rubber rooms without charges for months, or even years at a time.

On average, teachers now wait in excess of 200 days while allegations undergo an initial investigation – all without any formal charges.  There is no reason these investigations can’t be completed in 30 to 60 days, at the maximum.

The rubber room debacle has been wholly created under the stewardship of Chancellor Klein.  Under prior Chancellors, educators who had been removed from classrooms worked in office or non-teaching positions where they could make some contribution to the system during investigations.  That policy should be reinstated.

The rubber rooms do not work for the students or the teachers in NYC, and we have always stood ready to fix them.  Contrary to the picture the Mayor and Chancellor have painted for tabloid editorial pages, the UFT has met with the DOE on numerous occasions to try to make the necessary changes and expedite this process.  But the administration has preferred to grandstand on this issue rather than solve it.

Student test scores:  The idea of using student scores as the principal means to evaluate teachers is a classic political crowd-pleasing stunt. Unfortunately, as anyone who really understands education knows, it’s a cheap shot.

Study after study has shown that tests cover too narrow a field, and there are too many variables in a child’s life, school and classroom, from poverty to health issues to class size, to use one year’s test scores as reliable indicator of student success, much less the success of their teachers.

The Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, and the New York State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, have both said that the current state tests are in effect a broken measurement tool.  Preliminary results comparing the state math scores to the most reliable national test have raised grave questions about their reliability of the state tests, and our members know that the focus on these tests has led to a misguided “teach to the test” approach rather than system-wide academic improvement. In addition, the DOE’s school progress reports, based on the state tests, are highly flawed and questioned by everyone.

We have been working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create a valid, credible and measurable process that would capture the complexities of classroom teaching.  Chancellor Klein was supposed to be our partner in this potentially much more effective approach.

The real problems: At a time when the economy has decimated our city and state budgets, it was the UFT that sounded the alarm about schools being harmed by education budget cuts at the opening of the academic year.  We were the ones who rallied parents, education advocates and community organizations in a successful effort that stopped midyear reductions that would have cut services that schools and children are already receiving this year.

The members of the United Federation of Teachers have always been willing to work constructively with anyone who seeks to improve our schools and help children learn.  But we will fight — with all the resources at our command — anyone whose policies will damage the schools and the children of this city.

Sincerely,

Michael Mulgrew

President

From David Cantor:

“The mayor put forward bold proposals to help New York City win President Obama’s Race to the Top competition, which will provide badly needed funds for our schools and students. While reforming some of these failed practices may make some of our partners uncomfortable, we need to do everything we can to draw down these dollars for the city’s school children.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”