state of the union

In retirees, UFT leadership finds loyal — and unusual — support

CAPTION
UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks at the union’s annual retiree luncheon in Florida last week. (Photo: UFT)

At a synagogue in Surfside, Fla., last month, about 40 former teachers gathered for cupcakes, cheesecake, and a PowerPoint presentation by a pair of union representatives from New York. The teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers retiree chapter, and the representatives had been sent by the UFT and New York State United Teachers to pass along information about budget counseling, Medicare, and pet insurance.

Ken Goodman, the UFT Florida retiree chapter leader, called the meeting to order by announcing updates about the following month’s annual retiree luncheon. Buses would pick the members up from Surfside and ferry them to the event in Boca Raton, where UFT President Michael Mulgrew would deliver the keynote address just weeks before his re-election bid.

Despite being out of the classroom — in many cases, for decades — retirees make up a large portion of Mulgrew’s constituency. And because the UFT is one of the only unions in the country to allow retirees to vote in leadership elections, they are powerful. Even when they live far from New York City, the UFT’s 60,000 retiree members staunchly defend the union they helped shape in the 1960s and 1970s, and they volunteer in droves when the union mobilizes its members to support candidates or lobby on education or healthcare.

“We provide a service for those kind[s] of issues for the union, and the union helps us too on the issues we care about,” said Tom Murphy, the head of the UFT’s retiree chapter. He added that, after seeing how engaged UFT retirees remain, the American Federation of Teachers was considering allowing retirees in other locals to vote in union elections as well.

Retired teachers can choose to remain part of the UFT, spending a small portion of their pension on dues. Almost all do. Of the UFT’s 200,000 total members, nearly 60,000 are retirees, and about 8,000 of them live in Florida for at least part of the year. The UFT’s New York office devotes the entire 17th floor of its downtown skyscraper to retiree services. The chapter also has sections in Arizona, California, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and Israel.

In Florida, the retiree chapter’s Boca Raton office buzzes with activity. (The union spent $162,538 on rent for the office in 2012.) The staff—most of them retirees themselves—fields phone calls and emails about pensions and health coverage. They reach out to members, alerting them to programming such as beginning French classes.

“We’re constantly giving them information,” Goodman said. “For the most part, our members like to be involved.”

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The union and Democratic politicians also rely on Florida retirees to help them get out the vote. In last year’s U.S. presidential election, UFT members in Florida were active phone bankers, officials say, both for President Barack Obama and Patrick Murphy, who narrowly defeated incumbent Allen West, a Republican, in Florida’s 18th Congressional district. (Murphy also got an assist from West himself, who made a series of inflammatory statements that lost him local support.)

The retirees are sometimes called the “daytime union,” according to Murphy. “We’re available when our in-service working members are not,” he said. “If they need some of us to testify someplace or populate a hearing … many of us are able to do that.”

In addition to helping Obama win Florida last year, retirees contributed to Mulgrew’s 91 percent victory in 2010. Mulgrew would have won easily without their support, however, which suggests that—for now at least—there’s no schism between how retirees and current teachers vote.

But retirees may be among the most inclined to keep the union on its current track.

Once members retire, “the priorities change,” Goodman said. “We want to make sure our benefits are maintained.”

Many of the retirees at the Miami-Dade area meeting in Surfside, happy with those benefits, say they plan on voting again for Mulgrew, who is running as part of the Unity slate. Unity first took power in the 1960s, when many of the current retirees were in the classroom.

“I generally vote Unity … if I like the status quo,” said retiree Gloria Taft, 66, who taught math at I.S. 75 in Staten Island. She said she didn’t know much about the other candidates.

Two groups — Movement of Rank-and-File Educators and New Action — are running slates of candidates to challenge Unity, although only MORE is aiming to unseat Mulgrew. While the two minority parties are likely to gain some seats, they face an uphill battle to win spots in the union’s central leadership.

One reason is that retirees vote at significantly higher rates than active teachers. Nearly half of them voted in 2010, while less than a quarter of active teachers did so. But the number of votes that retirees can contribute is capped, meaning that each vote tends to count for something less than one. Retiree votes were initially capped at 18,000, but the UFT delegate assembly increased that to 23,500 last year in response to growth in both total union membership and the retiree chapter.

The shift drew criticism for reducing the influence of current teachers — who will be more directly affected by policies that the union supports or opposes.

“Should all other voter turnout stay the same, it’s possible that in this election the retirees will account for 50 percent” of the vote, said Sydney Morris, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence. The group encourages its members to become more involved in the union, including pushing them to vote in union elections. It opposed raising the retiree vote cap, arguing that current teachers should have a larger voice than retirees in the elections.

Retired high-school teacher Adrianne Brum “absolutely” will vote this year; she does so in every election. “I pay for that,” she said. She, and many of her peers, praised the UFT for securing good benefits for them and keeping them well-informed about the benefits. Brum and others said those protections are a priority when they vote.

“The union worked very hard to give us the kind of security we do have,” Brum said, adding that critics of teachers unions “think we’re getting away with murder.”

“We put up with much lower pay so we can have these perks,” she said.

Murphy said he also sees retired members concerned about what’s happening in the classroom — particularly the push to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Simon Schlanger, 74, who has been a UFT member for 50 years, also said he was planning to vote for Mulgrew. But though Schlanger, who was a social studies teacher and guidance counselor in the Bronx, cares about how teachers are treated, he said his primary concern was not about his own security.  “It’s making sure the kids get a good education,” he said.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

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