state of the union

In Albany, teachers unions' lobbying power remains unmatched

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for Alliance for Quality Education, an organization that co-hosts Lobby Day with NYSUT.
Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for Alliance for Quality Education, a group that co-hosts Lobby Day with NYSUT, speaks in Albany on Tuesday.
Teachers from across the state began descending on Albany Tuesday for a series of high-profile meetings with lawmakers, a small but significant part of their unions’ overall lobbying strategies.

A high school marching band helped start off the New York State United Teachers’ lobby day in the late morning, leading hundreds bused in from around the state on a parade outside the state Capitol building. At a rally, the crowd of teachers, students, and community organizers asked for more school funding and called Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget, which increases state aid by 4.4 percent, “bananas” because it wasn’t enough.

Today’s message will feature a different union — the city’s United Federation of Teachers — with different budget priorities and a more powerful audience. The UFT wants money for teacher training centers, community schools, and child care, and it has reserved speaking slots at its rally for the legislature’s three leaders: Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, Senate Republican Dean Skelos and Senate Democrat Jeff Klein.

The two lobby days, which include union members and their supporters, are among the most visible manifestations of the unions’ annual behind-the-scenes effort to influence how state policies are shaped and money is spent. Each year, New York’s teacher unions spend millions to organize large rallies, launch statewide advertising campaigns and pay teams of staff lobbyists to work directly with elected officials on specific legislation.

The UFT spent more than $1.86 million on lobbying expenses in 2012, including thousands of dollars on catering for phone banks, cell phone reimbursements and postage, according to records filed with the New York State Ethics Commission. And while NYSUT spent dramatically less on lobbying than in previous years, the state union still spent $1.7 million last year.

The two unions, like many of their counterparts across the country, are an ever-present force at the state capitol, lobbying legislators and organizing their members to reach out to them. Put together, the unions represent about 800,000 teachers, school staff, nurses, college faculty (and even more than 1,000 lifeguards). By staying closely involved, they’ve been able to score key legislative victories – and soften the blows of some defeats.

“The real power of the unions is not so much the dollar amount in any given year,” said Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that contributes to reform-minded Democrats and lobbies for specific education policies. “The fact that they go at it year after year after year forces groups that are pushing ideas and the legislation that the unions [are] opposed to to be very smart about selecting issues.”In their filings with the state’s ethics commission, groups are required to list any bill that they “expect” to lobby on. Each year, NYSUT and UFT list hundreds, many having to do with healthcare or schools, such as a bill to study the option of a four-day school week or one about radon testing in schools.

But other bills on the unions’ list fall outside of their normal purview. Among the bills that the UFT and NYSUT said they expected to lobby on in 2012 was one that would “direct the commissioner of health to establish a schedule of fees for the use and maintenance and repair of air conditioners used by residents of adult homes.” Another, Senate Bill 1255, would make the monk parakeet a protected bird.

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Listing so many bills, the UFT said, is a way to err on the side of caution and guarantee that the list covers everything any union lobbyist might be asked about. In reality, the organizations pour the bulk of their time and resources into a few key bills.

In 2009, the UFT pushed for incorporating transparency requirements for New York City school closures into the reauthorization of mayoral control; now there must be a hearing and impact statement before a school is shuttered. In 2011, the union was able to defeat Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push for an end to seniority-based layoffs.

But even when bills that the unions opposed gained traction, they have been able to help craft compromises. UFT officials explained that when a bill clearly has enough support to pass, its lobbyists focus on helping to shape the specific details. In the 2012 teacher evaluation bill, for instance, they worked on an amendment to the appeals process. When legislators voted to raise the state’s charter school cap in 2010, the UFT succeeded in establishing a limit on how many of the schools could open in a given year and how many could be in New York City.

Traditionally, NYSUT has outspent the UFT — and virtually all other groups that lobby in Albany. In 2010, NYSUT spent $4.7 million, the second most of any lobbying organization, and $4.2 million in 2011, which ranked third, according to a report by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

But in 2012, NYSUT slowed its rate of spending on lobbying and was surpassed by the UFT, its New York City affiliate, records show. (In 2012, by contrast, the UFT slightly increased its lobbying expenditures from 2011.)

Brownsville Academy senior Tyrone Francisco and several of his classmates meet with State Sen. John Sampson’s chief of staff.
Brownsville Academy senior Tyrone Francisco and his classmates met with State Sen. John Sampson’s chief of staff.

One reason, spokesman Carl Korn said, was that, compared to 2011, when the union spent big to kill a “Tier VI” bill that would have required its members to pay more to tap into their pension benefits, there were fewer contentious bills to fight.

The union usually advertises in local markets to urge voters to pass their proposed school budgets. But few of them were contentious in 2012, due to a property tax cap that limited budget growth to just a few percentage points, Korn said.

“We typically do media buys on state budget and school budgets and if there is an extraordinary legislative measure,” Korn said.

Most of the money NYSUT saved on advertising went toward other political strategies. In a heated election year in which Democrats had a realistic shot at taking over leadership in the New York State Senate, the union poured $4.5 million into polling, advertisements, and direct contributions for its preferred candidates in hotly contested races.

NYSUT’s lobbying expenses come as the organization’s financial books are in question. The union reported a nearly $30 million deficit on its latest tax forms submitted to the federal government, first reported this week in the Albany Times Union. (Attributing the shortfall to an accounting issue involving pensions, Korn said the union’s actual deficit was closer to $7.8 million.)

Lobbying often means hiring an outside firm to persuade legislators. While each organization does have employees that devote part or all of their time to working directly with senators and representatives, together, their overall lobbying strategy is diverse, relying on member organization and public awareness as well.

In 2012, NYSUT spent at least $114,840 on advertising and $17,565 on member giveaways, including $1,666 for clacker noisemakers. That year, the UFT reported spending $11,144 on iPads and $10,185 on t-shirts. Another $51,770 went to make a bulk “first aid kit/nylon bag with UFT logo” buy; items such as the kits are given out at UFT booths at events like Harlem Week and the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn.

Much of NYSUT’s more than $360,000 in itemized expenses went to member reimbursements for Lobby Days in Albany, where teachers visit the capitol and meet with legislators. The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization that receives funding from NYSUT and co-hosts its lobby day, has spent more than $200,000 on lobbying over the past two years.

At least $140,974 of the UFT’s 2012 expenses went to Lobby Day costs, such as buses, parking, buttons, and staff accommodations.

Not all of the unions’ lobbying efforts are captured in their spending reports. Mobilizing members is often a crucial lobby activity for teachers unions across the country, said Dara Zeehandelaar, a research manager at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. But expenses for such “internal communications” may not always be reported as lobbying expenditures, she said.

“The power of the union is not quantifiable with the dollar amount because you can’t put a price tag on sending an email,” Zeehandelaar said. “It’s part of the teachers union culture. As a teacher you expect to get that message from your union. … That’s not going to show up in your financial reports.”

Take, for instance, what happened months after New York City’s release of teacher performance data sparked nationwide outcry by teachers and their unions. Lawmakers sought to prevent it from happening again through legislation. The legislation faced considerable opposition from free speech advocates and, importantly, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a significant donor to Senate Republicans. Bloomberg saw the public’s access to performance data as critical to a high standard of accountability.

NYSUT asked its vast membership to tell their legislators, in emails, letters, phone calls and even faxes, to support legislation that would bar the public from seeing teacher ratings. The campaign, which relied on teachers to voluntarily and individually lobby lawmakers, yielded 33,000 faxes and “thousands” more calls and letters, Korn said.

On June 21, much to Bloomberg’s frustration, the legislature passed a privacy law that would limit access to teacher ratings to the parents of each teacher’s students.

“NYSUT’S strength comes not from its lobbying but from the tens of thousands of energized teachers in districts across the state who are knowledgeable with the issues and will work with candidates who will support public education and organized labor,” Korn said. “Elected leaders listen to their constituents.”

In 2010, Democrats for Education Reform went head to head with the teachers unions in New York, pushing to raise the state’s charter cap and devoting more than $6.5 million primarily to produce ads in favor of the bill. DFER ultimately won a partial victory, but had to outspend the unions to do so.

“I can’t imagine that’s ever going to happen again,” Williams said of beating the unions, adding that his group would be unable to routinely challenge them“You can’t afford to fight incremental battles with the union. They’ll demolish you.”

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

Superintendent search

Nashville school official is one of four finalists to become Newark’s next superintendent

Sito Narcisse

A top Nashville schools official is one of four finalists vying to become Newark’s next superintendent.

Newark’s school board has not announced the finalists, but Sito Narcisse, currently chief of schools of the 88,000-student Metro Nashville Public School system, is in the running, Chalkbeat has learned. Narcisse, who has also been a high-ranking official in two large Maryland school districts and a principal in Boston and Pittsburgh, confirmed the news on Monday. The son of Haitian immigrants who spoke French-Creole at home as a child growing up on Long Island, he later helped open two high schools for recent immigrants who were still learning English.

The other finalists, Chalkbeat has previously reported, are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso, Newark Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, and Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon. (Alonso previously declined to comment, and Leon did not respond to an email.)

Newark’s last state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf, stepped down on Feb. 1 when the school board officially regained control of the district after 22 years of management by the state. As the district transitions back to local supervision, it must adhere to a state plan that stipulated that there be a national search for the next superintendent and three finalists for the full board to vote on. However, the state last month granted a request by the board to name four finalists instead of three.

The finalists will introduce themselves to the public at a forum on Friday, though the audience will not be allowed to ask questions. The school board will then interview the candidates in private on Saturday, before they are expected to make their selection at the public board meeting on May 22.

Narcisse was also a semifinalist for the superintendent position in Duval County, Florida until Monday, when the school board there voted not to advance him to the second round of interviews, according to the district’s website. (Unlike Newark, that school system posted all the candidates’ applications online and will livestream the school board’s interviews with the finalists.)

Alonso, the other candidate from outside Newark, was recently in the running to become Los Angeles’ next superintendent before withdrawing his name last month. Both he and Narcisse may face an uphill battle in Newark, where several board members and many residents have said they would prefer a local educator to run the school system now that it is back in local hands after decades of state oversight.

In an interview Monday, Narcisse told Chalkbeat that if he was hired in Newark he would work hard to get to know the district and “become a part of that community.” He added that many of the schools he oversaw in Tennessee and Maryland served low-income students who dealt with trauma and poverty similar to the kinds faced by many Newark students.

“I know I’m not from Newark,” he said. “But the children of Newark have the same set of issues, the same set of challenges.”

Narcisse began his career as a high-school French teacher in a suburban district outside Nashville, before opening a public school in Pittsburgh and then taking over a struggling high school in Boston. He later held district leadership roles in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he helped design the new schools for immigrants still learning English.

In 2016, he became chief of schools for the Metro Nashville system, the second-highest position in the district, where he is responsible for overseeing 169 schools. In that role, he helped establish a high school where students can earn associate’s degrees, brought new science and technology programs into the middle schools, and participated in a public-private partnership to boost students’ reading skills, he said. His salary is $185,000 per year, according to his application for the Duval County position.

He said that he has absorbed several lessons over the years on how to improve struggling schools: Find a strong principal, provide lots of staff training, and invest in extra support services for students. He also cited another lesson that could be especially apt in Newark, where many residents rejected the sweeping policy changes enacted by Cami Anderson, a prior state-appointed superintendent.

“The other part is to not to do reform to them — but to be a part of the work with them,” he said, referring to community members. “That’s how change and sustainability happens.”

family matters

Lashing out at de Blasio administration, Mulgrew says educators lack paid parental leave because of ‘gender bias’

PHOTO: Philissa Cramer
UFT President Michael Mulgrew

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew tore into the city Monday for not providing paid parental leave to city teachers, calling the situation a case of “gender bias.”

Mulgrew, whose union is 77 percent women, was among the leaders testifying about the need for a paid parental leave policy Monday at a joint hearing of the City Council’s committees on education and civil service and labor.

In some of his harshest criticism of the de Blasio administration, Mulgrew criticized city leaders for saying leave should be negotiated in contract talks and come with concessions.

“I believe this is clearly gender bias on behalf of the City of New York and I do believe now it’s being used completely as a bargaining chip against our union, the union with the high female [membership],” Mulgrew said. “So I’m quite aggravated and pissed off at the city on this whole thing.”

Under the Department of Education’s current policy, teachers who want paid leave after having a baby must use accrued sick days. The policy applies only to birth mothers, not educators who become parents through surrogacy or adoption.

The UFT’s fight, spurred in part by a petition that went viral last fall, comes after the city extended six weeks of fully paid time off to its non-union workforce in 2016, covering about 20,000 managerial employees.

The city has pointed out that those workers made concessions, including giving up raises and vacation days, in exchange for their leave. The administration has also estimated that extending this program to all UFT members could cost $1 billion over four years.

Bob Linn, the city’s labor commissioner, testified Monday that paid leave was an issue that would be addressed during negotiations with the UFT, whose contract expires in November. “We will be reaching agreements on this issue,” he said.

Here’s what three UFT members who spoke Monday told the council:

Carolyn Dugan, a special education teacher in Manhattan at PS/IS 180

“I went into labor at my school because I was trying to save all my sick days for my maternity leave.
I wanted to maximize the little time I had with my newborn, so instead of taking a few days to rest before the baby was born, I worked up to very last moment and I ended up going into labor at

Eric Rubin-Perez, a school counselor at the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Queens

“I had managed to save over 65 days in my bank that I had always planned on using for child care leave. I attended a UFT workshop on paternity leave in the fall of 2013. To my shock, I learned that as a father I was only allowed to use three personal days. It didn’t matter how many days I had saved in my bank, I was not able to use any of them. All those times I made the treacherous commute in the snow to my school in Elmhurst, Queens, from my home in Suffolk County, or when I came back to work after oral surgery didn’t matter, because I could not use any of my days. My husband who worked on Long Island got six weeks of paid paternity leave so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get anything.”

PHOTO: Jessica Jean-Marie
Teacher Jessica Jean-Marie returned to work last week.

Jessica Jean-Marie, teacher in New York City public schools

“Last week, I returned from maternity leave after 11 weeks from having my second child. I tried working until I went into labor so that I could have a full 12 weeks — six weeks using sick days and six weeks off payroll on unpaid child care leave — at home with my son. I couldn’t do it. The physical pain and the mental stress became too much. I worked up until the week of my due date, hoping my son would come sooner than later so I can maximize my leave. He arrived three days past due.”