paying dues

UFT bracing for fallout from Supreme Court decision in Janus case

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
UFT President Michael Mulgrew this winter hosted a discussion on the potential impacts of Janus.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a decision that is widely seen as a blow to public unions and could have particularly dramatic effects in New York City, where the United Federation of Teachers counts more than 100,000 members.

The 5-4 decision means that public unions in more than 20 states can no longer collect “agency fees” from non-members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of negotiating contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members.

Now that employees have a financial incentive to opt-out of their unions, the decision is expected to drain membership, and with it, money that has helped fuel labor’s political clout.

The impact will likely be magnified for the UFT, the largest union local in the country. UFT President Michael Mulgrew was defiant, calling the Supreme Court “perverted and twisted” by political interests.

“As I promised my mother numerous times, I will pray for all of them when they’re burning in hell,” he said.

The decision was hardly a surprise: Justices had deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expected a conservative-leaning court to side with Mark Janus, an Illinois public employee who challenged the fee on the grounds that it essentially forced him to support a political organization and violated his right to free speech.

Elected officials across the labor-friendly state were quick to show their support Wednesday. Flanked by union leaders in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that exempts the personal information of state employees from public disclosure, saying anti-union forces in other places have used lists of addresses and phone numbers to “harass” public employees into leaving their unions. Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, joined more than 20 mayors from around the country in signing a symbolic pledge to protect workers rights.

“We believe working people deserve fairness. It’s clear that the conservative Supreme Court justices don’t share that same sentiment,” de Blasio said in an emailed statement.

The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents. Currently, about 1,200 educators opt out of the UFT and pay agency fees instead. Union officials said those people can stop paying all fees immediately — which translates to a financial hit of about $1.5 million annually.

Members have an extremely short window to decide whether to stop paying dues for the upcoming year: Though educators can drop their membership at any time, the dues obligation can only be cancelled between June 15 and June 30 every year — giving members a chance to act on the court’s decision immediately.

With the Supreme Court decision, the number of members dropping their union is only expected to grow. That is what happened in states like Michigan, where membership in the state teachers union dropped by 20 percent after “right to work” laws outlawed mandatory agency fees.

The Janus decision cuts particularly deep because, writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito emphasized that employees must opt in to union membership. In New York City, union officials said teachers automatically become agency-fee payers, but they must opt-in to the union by signing a membership card.

Nat Malkus, deputy director of education policy at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the opt-in requirement could have an “enormous” impact on membership numbers.

“With the requirement for affirmative consent, any declines that were anticipated before Janus are likely lowball estimates,” he said. “The opt-in, opt-out difference can be just unbelievable.”

In anticipation of the Janus ruling, New York lawmakers recently passed legislation to help stem the potential losses and give members an incentive to keep their union cards.  The law gives union representatives time to meet with new employees, and allows unions to pull back services to non-members.

Under the law, UFT officials said the union is not obligated to provide a lawyer to non-members who face disciplinary charges, and that the UFT can limit services such as teacher trainings to only dues-paying members.

Dues are about $117 a month for teachers, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school jobs pay different amounts. Members also have the option of  contributing to a separate political fund, which the UFT uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

Many educators took to Twitter to show support for their union, using hashtags like #UnionProud.

“I know how important it is to have the UFT benefits as a way of protection,” wrote Lisa Ringston, a 20-year veteran of the education department who currently works with children who have autism. “With what little dues we pay, it goes a long way, and taking it away would be very detrimental.

Wednesday’s decision comes less than a week after a huge victory for the UFT — striking a deal with New York City to provide paid family leave to teachers. The union had been pressuring the city on the issue for months, and securing that victory could help demonstrate the UFT’s worth at a time when attracting dues-paying members could become more difficult.

The union took up the cause after a petition launched by two teachers went viral. Some say the Supreme Court decision is another opportunity for the union to become more responsive to its rank-and-file.

“Unions will need to better connect with their members,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “In light of this ruling teachers need to recommit to their unions, and unions need to recommit to their members by becoming even more democratic, diverse, and student-focused.”

Even before the decision was rendered, the UFT took on an aggressive campaign to hold on to members — who are now free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially. But they are bracing for potential losses. Leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations.

Mulgrew said the union will continue a recruitment and information campaign that started last winter. Along with local legislation to protect workers, he said that one-on-one conversations with teachers will be key in retaining membership.

“Having that conversation and building more active chapters at every work site has been the main push,” he said.

Daniel Lund Holstein, a high school math teacher, volunteered to knock on hundreds of doors of fellow union members to convince them to continue paying dues. He said the looming decision added to a feeling that many teachers have of being under attack, and inspired most to double-down and show support.

“The majority of teachers I talk to are very savvy about what exactly they get for those dues — and it is extensive,” he said. “When you have a bunch of teachers in the room or you have a one-on-one conversation, you have a lot of excitement about a revitalized union.”

If you’re an educator, let us know how the decision will affect your decisions about union membership.

Read more about potential impact on New York City here. And read about what has happened to schools, teachers, and students in other states after union protections were weakened.

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.