Back (Pay) Talk

News of unusual back pay proposal draws mixed reactions

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew

A potential back pay compromise that has emerged in new contract talks between the city and teachers union sparked mixed reactions Friday.

On the one hand, some said, the proposal to spread more than $3 billion in retroactive raises over a nine-year contract offers the city an affordable payment option, while creating some budget stability. But on the other hand, critics said, the deal could set a damaging pattern for other unions while still requiring serious givebacks from the teachers.

Meanwhile, the mayor declined to confirm the negotiation details, which were revealed in a New York Times report, while union officials noted that more options were on the table than just those leaked to the press.

“There’s just a whole lot of potential ways to settle this,” said Doug Turetsky, chief of staff for the Independent Budget Office, who noted that both the city and union say they have viable proposals. “Sometimes realism is in the eye of the beholder.”

The Times report, which offered the first glimpse into intense, ongoing city-union negotiations, said the long contract would include $3.4 billion in retroactive raises to match ones that other unions received several years ago. The deal could also include raises for more recent years. It would extend from 2009, when the teachers’ last contract expired, until 2018, after Mayor Bill de Blasio faces re-election.

Such a deal could make the sizable back pay affordable to the city, which says it does not have anywhere near that amount available in its current budget, said Charles Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed watchdog group.

If the deal gives teachers the 4 percent raises that they missed in earlier bargaining rounds, they may be more willing to accept smaller raises for the latest rounds — setting a precedent for “reasonable settlements” with the other municipal unions, Brecher added.

“I think if you’re getting an amount of cash like that it makes it easier to be content with a more modest package going forward,” he said.

But that very possibility might make the union wary: The other 151 municipal unions that lack contracts would not be pleased if the United Federation of Teachers set a pattern of modest pay increases.

“We should not undercut other unions by getting our retroactive money and then skimping everyone else for the subsequent years,” said Peter Lamphere, a high school teacher and member of the UFT’s MORE caucus, which has called for a more inclusive and transparent bargaining process.

What’s more, even if the raises were spread out over several years, the union would still likely have to stomach serious cost-savings, most likely relating to health insurance, but also possibly in other areas, such as its pool of paid teachers without full-time jobs.

De Blasio said as much in brief comments to reporters Friday.

“We can’t get where we need to go without cost savings,” he said. “And I think folks in the labor community understand that.”

That is not necessarily the case. Some in the union have suggested that the city has hidden funds in its budget that could be used for worker raises.

“I definitely do not agree with the position that [the raises] will require concessions from the union,” Lamphere said. “I think the money is there.”

The UFT, like de Blasio, declined to comment on the details of the news report Friday.

But one union official noted that such a lengthy contract would be highly unusual, and risky, if economic conditions worsened or problems arose with other provisions of the deal during the long life of the contract. The official added that UFT President Michael Mulgrew has “talked about a whole variety of lengths of contracts” with city negotiators.

Of course, while back pay is a major issue in city-teacher negotiations, it is hardly the only one. Changes to the new teacher-evaluation system will almost certainly be up for discussion, as well as the various non-instructional tasks now required of teachers.

MORE has called for smaller class sizes, additional in-school supports for students, and teacher evaluations that do not incorporate standardized-test scores, among other demands. It says the union should do more to rally its members around those causes while bargaining is still underway.

“There’s a window right now where there are a lot of things in play,” Lamphere said. “And the more pressure we bring to bear on the city the better.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”