the educated voter

As city teachers vote, union chief Mulgrew faces small but spirited group of challengers

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.

Disappointment drove second-grade teacher Michelle Baptiste to run for a seat in this month’s union elections.

She watched with dismay as the city’s United Federation of Teachers — the largest local union chapter in the nation — declined to back the swelling protest movement against standardized tests, or to forcefully push for school desegregation, she said. And she has waited in vain for smaller class sizes and better training, despite a new era of cooperation between the union and City Hall.

“As a working teacher, I don’t see a whole heck of a lot of change,” said Baptiste, a member of an opposition party within the union called MORE, who is running for a seat on the union’s policy-making board. “It hasn’t trickled down to me.”

As UFT President Michael Mulgrew seeks another three-year term, he can point to the union’s rising fortunes since its last election in 2013. During that time, the union has added thousands of new members and it replaced a long-expired contract with a new one that gave teachers a hefty (if incremental) raise. In the process, Mulgrew has transformed from City Hall’s chief antagonist under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to one of its most stalwart allies under current Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Despite those changes, a small but spirited dissident group within the union is arguing that conditions have barely improved for ordinary teachers. While those activists have little hope of ousting the union’s leadership — Mulgrew won 86 percent of the vote in 2013 — they are using the election as a chance to question how much rank-and-file members have really benefitted from the union’s new partnership with City Hall, and to force a new set of priorities onto the union’s agenda.

Michelle Baptiste (center), a second-grade teacher at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, is running for a spot on the union's executive board.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Michelle Baptiste (center), a second-grade teacher at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, is running for a spot on the union’s executive board.

Leading that charge is MORE, or the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a relatively new party within the union focused on bread-and-butter labor concerns like pay and job protections, alongside hot-button policy issues like teacher evaluations and school segregation. This year it teamed up with New Action, a longstanding opposition caucus that endorsed Mulgrew in the previous election, to put forward a slate of candidates to vie for dozens of union positions, including president. (Ballots were sent out last week and must be returned by May 25.)

MORE is set to release a report Tuesday that makes the case that Mulgrew and de Blasio have failed to halt a steady deterioration of school conditions.

The report, titled “The Crisis in Our Schools,” is based on an online survey of 438 UFT members that MORE distributed last fall through social media, email groups, college professors, and other means. The respondents work in at least 200 schools across the city, according to MORE.

Nearly half of respondents said their school buildings are not in good shape, more than two-thirds said their schools do not devote adequate resources to students with disabilities, and almost a third said they are unable to make photocopies at school, the report says.

“Conditions continue to get worse,” Erik Forman, a MORE member who teaches in a Bronx high school, said in an email. Meanwhile, union leaders “fail to engage the membership in a campaign to fix the problems. Instead, they say, ‘Celebrate our schools.’’’

The union did not respond to the survey findings, but Mulgrew said in a statement that the union routinely polls its members about work conditions, then adjusts its priorities accordingly.

Another minority caucus called Solidarity, which is even newer than MORE and less well-known, is also jumping into the election. Led by Francesco Portelos, a Staten Island teacher who has clashed bitterly and publicly with his principal, the party is focused largely on teacher-administrator relations.

The minority-party candidates face tough odds partly due to the union’s unusual election rules, which allow retirees to vote. Nearly a third of the 189,469 ballots this year went to retirees, who historically have been more likely than active members to return their ballots and to back the current union leadership. In 2013, 93 percent of retirees voted for Mulgrew, while one in five active members backed the MORE candidate challenging him.

Jia Lee, this year’s MORE/New Action candidate for union president, said she knew it would be “long shot” for her to unseat Mulgrew. But the election still provides an opportunity to recruit new members, highlight issues, and encourage teachers to take more ownership of their union, she said.

“I think it’s just about raising awareness and getting members actively engaged in the union, versus just saying, ‘I have no choice,’ and shrugging your shoulders,” said Lee, a special education teacher in Manhattan who has championed the right of parents to refuse to let their children take standardized tests.

While MORE/New Action’s candidates are unlikely to replace any of the union’s dozen officers, they have a better chance of snagging one of the 90 seats on the union’s executive board, which helps set policy. In particular, they have set their sights on the seven slots reserved for high school representatives, since high school teachers have historically been more likely to support alternative candidates.

The UFT press office did not make Mulgrew available for an interview. But it pointed to campaign materials produced by his party, called Unity, that cite a host of accomplishments under his leadership. Those include an 18 percent raise for members (spread out over seven years) in the new contract, the addition of 7,000 new UFT members during Mulgrew’s tenure, and a successful bid to get policymakers in Albany to temporarily remove state test scores from teacher evaluations.

Perhaps the strongest endorsement of Mulgrew’s leadership has come from de Blasio, who has enjoyed the UFT’s steady backing even as he butted heads with the police officers’ union and his fellow Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Speaking at the UFT’s spring conference Saturday, de Blasio praised Mulgrew as a fighter.

“In fact, when he sees a righteous cause, he goes out of his way to stand by it,” the mayor said, according to a transcript. “And that is a leadership that is helping to make this city and, in fact, this whole state a better place.”

Clarification [May 11, 2016]: This story has been updated to include additional information about the survey that MORE conducted in fall 2015.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.