Decision time

Will they stay or go: New York City teachers ponder relationship with union post-Janus

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

The predictions are dire: After the Supreme Court ruled this week that public employees can’t be forced to pay fees to unions, labor experts say membership and dues could dwindle by double-digit percentages.

In New York City, more than 100,000 members of the United Federation of Teachers will have to act quickly if they want to cut off their dues payments: The annual two-week window to opt out of deductions ends on Sunday.

In the wake of the ruling, we asked educators whether they plan on sticking with their union, and what issues will be important as they weigh their decision.

More than 100 teachers, paraprofessionals, retirees and other school staff responded — and the vast majority say they are holding on to their union cards. But some members also hope for changes.

“My union does a great job at negotiating fair pay, pension, working conditions, and offering great services for its members,” said Rashad Brown, a teacher at M.S. 224. “I could not negotiate any of this on my own.”  

In a state with the highest union membership in the country, the show of support is not surprising. But time will tell whether the UFT can maintain that enthusiasm: In other states that have passed restrictive labor laws, membership has plummeted. Take Michigan, for example, where membership in the state teachers union dropped by 20 percent after “right to work” laws outlawed mandatory fees.

Here is what New York City educators from across the city had to say.

It’s not just about wages but also about teaching and learning.

“I worked in North Carolina before I came to New York and saw first hand what happens when collective bargaining power is stripped from teachers and their voice is effectively shut out from policy making. Teachers suffer and students suffer. I will never (willingly) fall back into that situation.”

— John McCran, teacher, Harvest Collegiate

“My quality of life as a teacher depends so much on the union. Salary increases, healthcare, days off — I owe all of these benefits to my union. I firmly believe that having a strong union at both the city and school level not only improves the working environment for teachers, but also improves the learning environment for our students.”

— Naomi Sharlin, teacher and special education coordinator

“My membership means that I will be protected from unfair work practices such excessive paperwork, not being paid for time worked over regular school hours, health benefits, and pension benefits being cut or taken away, fair hearings in case my job is jeopardized by false accusations.”

— Denise Lane, teacher at P.S. 289 in Brooklyn

The union has these teachers’ backs.

“It’s a shame politicians want to strip teachers of their dignity and treat them poorly. Our education system is falling apart and we as professionals are watching the educational system deteriorate! Our union is not only helping teachers, it is working very hard to help fix the educational system and cares deeply about the students.”

— Kerry Meehan-Capurso, special education teacher, P.S. 1 on Staten Island

“As it stands, the teaching profession is denigrated, dismissed, devalued… However, the presence of a strong and active union in New York City has alleviated some of the pressures so many of my colleagues in other states face. It’s hard enough to do the job well without added stresses.”

— Jason Zanitsch, teacher at High School for Public Service: Heroes of Tomorrow

Others are sticking around for the contracts and benefits.

“We are stronger together than we are apart. I don’t think many people realize the many benefits and securities we have gained through the years as a result of collective bargaining. The alternative is frightening to me.”

— Deborah Ogedengbe, teacher at P.S. 386

“Because of the union, my family has health coverage, a dental and optical plan, and a prescription plan. My salary keeps me in the middle class. My union gives me job protections, and I will have a secure retirement.”

— Richard Skibins, teacher at P.S. 123 in Brooklyn

“I am sticking with the union because of all of the wonderful things that they do to take care of their members. The Welfare Fund is unparalleled in what it provides to us as members. They protect our pensions, our tenure, duty-free lunch, prep periods and guaranteed summers off.”

— Farrah Alexander, teacher at P.S. 64 in Manhattan

Some hope the union will become more responsive after Janus.

“I’m sticking to the union, though the Mulgrew crew has to do a lot more organizing and move away from the business model and take up the fight for better education.”

— Jose Alfaro, retired school social worker

“I’m waiting to see what the next contract looks like. The UFT needs to do a better job actually representing the rank and file. But I’m willing to give them a chance to prove themselves… I feel like the UFT is really going to have to start earning its keep and representing all of its members.”

— Margaret McDonald, sixth-grade special education teacher at I.S. 234 in Brooklyn

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.