on second thought

UFT chief Mulgrew doubles down on private remarks, with one concession

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

UFT President Michael Mulgrew doubled down on blunt remarks he made privately to his  members this week, defending his role in last year’s failed teacher evaluation deal and vilifying opponents of the union.

“They wanted to use teacher evaluations to take teachers down,” Mulgrew said in an interview on Friday, explaining why he fought to implement a more complex teacher rating system than the one the city wanted.

The sentiments echo his remarks to the teachers union’s delegate assembly on Wednesday night, where he said that the union pushed to require supervisors to rate teachers on 22 skills as a way to “gum up the works” and spoke disparagingly of the Bloomberg administration. Chalkbeat reported those comments Thursday, which critics pounced on as proof the union did not fully support changes meant to increase accountability for teachers.

Mulgrew also raised eyebrows with a critique of education “reformers” who oppose teacher tenure and support charter schools, whose ideas he said were destroying public education. On Friday, he said it was merely the latest showdown in a lengthy battle and said he no longer wanted to associate himself with the term “reform.”

“We’ve been fighting with these folks for years,” Mulgrew said. “This has been a non-stop fight.” 

When Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked on Friday whether the union president’s remarks indicated an unwillingness to support change, the mayor defended Mulgrew. The union leader was “front and center” in pushing for the biggest changes in the proposed contract, de Blasio said, including higher salaries for top teachers who agree to take on leadership responsibilities, bonuses for teachers in high-need schools, and the creation of “innovation schools” that will be freed from certain scheduling restrictions.

“These are all fundamental reforms, so Mr. Mulgrew was front and center in making those reforms happen with us and I respect him for it,” de Blasio said.

The comments capped a whirlwind week for Mulgrew, who announced a tentative agreement with the city on a new contract last Thursday. Though some members have criticized the way the union communicated the contract’s terms, Mulgrew has successfully steered the union’s ratification process through two preliminary rounds of approval. All that is left is a vote by the union’s 100,000 members, which is expected next month.

But Mulgrew has been criticized by advocates who said his comment are symbolic of the union’s resistance to change. Others said Mulgrew’s comments offered proof that he was negotiating in bad faith over teacher evaluations—especially significant because the city’s failure to negotiate a teacher evaluation system last year cost schools $290 million in state aid.

Mona Davids, a parent activist who is suing the state to recoup some of that money, said that she planned to add Mulgrew and the teachers union to the lawsuit in the wake of his comments.

“He admitted to gumming it up so there was no way possible, no matter what, for this thing to work,” Davids said. “He had no intention to negotiate with Michael Bloomberg. He knowingly cost our children $290 million.”

When State Education Commissioner John King settled the dispute, he sided with the union on its request to require that all 22 elements be used to rate teachers.

This year, principals have said the mandate has been the most frustrating part of the resulting evaluation system. They’ve said that rating teachers on all 22 elements is overly burdensome and that the emphasis on completing the entire rubric has made it difficult to focus on supporting teachers in specific ways. It has also led to more work for teachers because they’ve had to collect paperwork and submit it to supervisors to be rated on some of the 22 competencies.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña also singled out the 22 components as a flaw in this year’s teacher evaluation system, calling them “a bit overwhelming” last week.

But the evaluation system Mulgrew signed onto for next year closely resembled the one he so vehemently opposed during last year’s negotiations, with fewer skills to be assessed. Six of the seven components the city wanted last year will be used next year.

Asked if he felt responsible for any of these implementation hurdles, Mulgrew said the alternative would have been even worse. Trust had eroded so dramatically between the union and the Bloomberg administration that he assumed the metrics would have been used more punitively, he said.

“They would have turned it into a complete disaster this year,” Mulgrew said. “It would have completely damaged education this year.”

Speaking about Wednesday’s Delegate Assembly meeting, Mulgrew said that he wished some of his comments about the contract had gotten more attention. For instance, he said, the new contract expands the definition of sexual misconduct, a fireable offense, so that it includes inappropriate texting between a teacher and student.

“The [delegate assembly] was wholeheartedly endorsing it,” Mulgrew recalled from Wednesday’s meeting, “and we’re proud of it.”

And though Mulgrew didn’t back away from his remarks about the teacher evaluation negotiations, he did admit to second thoughts about another recent rhetorical addition: the use of the phrase “education reform.”

He and Mayor de Blasio touted their tentative contract agreement as being “truly in education reform mode” less than a week ago. But in Friday’s interview, Mulgrew said he was retiring the word “reform” from his vocabulary altogether.

“I thought about it for the last couple of days, and I thought, you know what, I’m not going to call it education reform,” Mulgrew said.

 “What we’re doing is innovation,” he continued. “We are innovating education.”

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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