arbitration arbitration

Lawsuit alleges union is breaking promises in 'rubber room' deal

A “big deal” forged to shutter the city’s infamous rubber rooms more than three years ago is getting dragged down by the city teachers union, the city charges in a lawsuit filed today.

Department of Education lawyers say the United Federation of Teachers has failed to hold up a key part of the agreement, which was struck with joint praise from Mayor Bloomberg and union President Michael Mulgrew in April 2010 to speed up the disciplinary process for teachers whom the city wants to fire. At the time, the city estimated it was spending $30 million a year to pay 550 teachers who were removed from the classroom and who languished — sometimes for years — in reassignment centers known as “rubber rooms” while they awaited a hearing.

A major element of the deal was to increase the pool of mutually acceptable arbitrators — from 23 to 39 — who rule on cases against teachers charged with incompetence or misconduct. But three years after the reforms were scheduled to take place, that number has actually fallen to 19 — while the number of teachers facing trials stands at over 400.

The lawsuit alleges that the UFT has repeatedly balked at approving enough arbitrators to hit the new target. Last month, the union agreed to invite just 14 arbitrators, and the selection process stalled entirely this month.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew has argued that the union cannot agree to the arbitrators whom the city proposes. In a letter to Chancellor Dennnis Walcott earlier this week, Mulgrew said the selection process would be faster “if the DOE would propose more qualified candidates.”

The arbitrator pool has also shrunk because the state does not always pay arbitrators for their work in a timely fashion. The State Education Department, which is responsible for the payments, recently reported a $2 million deficit in the “Tenured Teacher Hearing” fund, which is used to pay arbitrators in disciplinary cases.

A group of arbitrators are suing the state over the payments, including one who’s owed $200,000 in backpay. “The reason many of the very senior arbitrators [sic] no longer do these cases is the state would not pay us based on the work that we had done,” former arbitrator Arthur Riegel told WNYC.

Perhaps as a result, few people have wanted to take the job when it is offered. Just eight of the 14 arbitrators offered the position in August accepted.

“Many arbitrators are reluctant to work with the DOE,” UFT spokesman Dick Riley said today.

As a result, the speed of the disciplinary process appears to have barely budged since 2010.The department reported in its lawsuit that there are currently more than 400 teachers who require discipline hearings with the 19 arbitrators, and lawyers said they expect another 150 cases in the near future.

The city said it is spending $8 million a year to pay teachers who have been removed from the classroom while they await arbitration.

Riley said the current pool of arbitrators would be “enough” if the department would consider using a less aggressive legal process called mediation. In that process, the teacher and the city first try to reach a settlement at a pretrial hearing to avoid starting arbitration. Union lawyers said that of 55 cases that went through this process this summer, 39 reached settlement without arbitration. In some cases, teachers agreed to resign or retire, while in others teachers accepted suspensions before returning to the classroom, union officials said.

“If the DOE was truly interested in in resolving cases efficiently, it would agree to our proposal to keep this process in place permanently,”  Mulgrew wrote to Walcott this week.

The city’s complete lawsuit is below:

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.