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.

Movers and shakers

Former Denver schools superintendent Tom Boasberg lands a new gig

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg, right, high-fives students, parents, and staff on the first day of school at Escalante-Biggs Academy in August.

Former Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg has been named superintendent of another organization 9,000 miles away: the Singapore American School in Southeast Asia.

Boasberg will start his new position July 1. He stepped down as superintendent of Denver Public Schools last month after nearly 10 years at the helm of the 92,000-student district. The Denver school board is in the process of choosing his successor.

Boasberg has spent significant time in Asia. After graduating from college, he taught English at a Hong Kong public school and played semi-professional basketball there. He later worked as chief of staff to the chairman of what was then Hong Kong’s largest political party.

He and his wife, Carin, met while studying in Taiwan. They now have three teenage children. In 2016, Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live in Argentina with his family. At the time, he said he and his wife always hoped to live overseas with their children.

“This gives us a chance as a family to go back to Asia,” Boasberg said, “and it’s something the kids are looking forward to, as well as my wife Carin and I.”

The Singapore American School is an elite non-profit school that was established in 1956 by a group of parents, according to its website. It now has more than 3,900 students in preschool through 12th grade, more than half of whom are American.

The school boasts low student-to-teacher ratios and lots of Advanced Placement classes, and sends several of its graduates to Ivy League colleges in the United States. Its facilities include a one-acre rainforest.

Boasberg notes that the school is also a leader in personalized learning, meaning that each student learns at their own pace. He called the school “wonderfully diverse” and said its students hail from more than 50 different countries. High school tuition is about $37,000 per year for students who hold a U.S. passport or whose parents do.

Leading the private Singapore American School will no doubt differ in some ways from leading a large, urban public school district. In his time as Denver superintendent, Boasberg was faced with making unpopular decisions, such as replacing low-performing schools, and the challenge of trying to close wide test score gaps between students from low-income families and students from wealthier ones.

“Denver will always be in my heart,” Boasberg said, “and we’re looking forward to this opportunity.”

it's official

Memphis schools chief Dorsey Hopson calls his work ‘a remarkable journey,’ but seeks new career at health care giant

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones/Chalkbeat
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson announces that he's resigning from the district to take a job with Cigna.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is leaving Shelby County Schools to lead an education initiative at a national health insurance company effective Jan. 8.

Prior to his departure, the school board expects to name an interim before the district breaks for the winter holidays, giving the panel time to seek a permanent replacement, said board chair Shante Avant.

Hopson’s job with Cigna is a new national position in government and education that will be based in Memphis, he said. He called the decision a “difficult” one that he ultimately made because of the demands on his family that are part of his job as superintendent.

“It’s been a remarkable journey,” Hopson said. “I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made together.”

A likely successor the board could tap is Lin Johnson, who was hired in 2015 as chief of finance. Johnson previously was director of special initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Education and director of finance and operations for the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board. He recently overhauled the district’s budget process to be more responsive to student needs rather than to a strict pupil-teacher ratio — a move Hopson lauded as a potential vehicle to reduce gaps in test scores for students of color living in poverty.

Hopson’s future has been the subject of intense speculation in recent weeks, especially after he endorsed Republican Bill Lee for governor in a race that the Williamson County businessman eventually won. A position in the governor’s office, or as education commissioner to succeed Candice McQueen, was considered among the possibilities for Hopson. But Hopson said on Tuesday that he would not be heading to Nashville to work for the Lee administration.

Cigna, Hopson’s future employer, is a Connecticut-based company that manages health insurance for about 19,500 district employees and retirees under a $24 million contract. The company is the third-largest health plan provider in Memphis with about 200 local employees, according to the Memphis Business Journal. In his new role, Hopson will help Cigna expand its services to school districts for health benefits and wellness programs.

“Having an individual with Hopson’s expertise in school administration and school district leadership in this role will be a great asset to Cigna’s consultative work serving K-12 schools,” a Cigna spokesperson said in a statement.

An attorney who had worked for school districts in Atlanta and Memphis, Hopson was named the first superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 2013 following the historic merger of city and county schools.

His hiring came on the cusp of massive change in Memphis’ educational landscape. The district’s student enrollment steadily declined after six suburban towns split off from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to create their own districts, and the state-run Achievement School District continued to siphon off students by taking over chronically low-performing schools in the city. Hopson and the school board eventually closed nearly two dozen schools to shore up resulting budget deficits.

Since then, under Hopson’s leadership, the district has gone from a $50 million deficit to investing more than $60 million in personnel, teacher and staff pay raises, and school improvement initiatives by lobbying for more county funding, dipping into the district’s reserves, closing underutilized schools, cutting transportation costs, and eliminating open job positions. The district has also sued the state in pursuit of more funding, and that lawsuit is ongoing.

“We have accomplished a great deal together, such as eliminating a $100 million deficit, investing more and students, and developing the Summer Learning Academy to prevent summer learning loss. That, in part, is what makes this decision so difficult,” Hopson said. “I would love to see this work to the finish line, but I feel confident that we have laid a strong foundation for the next leader.”

Now, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state-run district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from when Hopson took over. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban school district leaders.

“For the past six years, we have worked together to guide this great school district through monumental changes,” Hopson said. “Through it all, our educators and supporters have remained committed to aggressively increasing student achievement.”