Thursday, March 6, 2008

The UFT Delegate Assembly

Early reports on the March Delegate Assembly was that the UFT passed a resolution in support of the Puerto Rican teachers. Considering info coming in as recently as last Friday, this did not seem very likely and we look forward to getting the full story. Can this be a sign of an opening move on Randi's part to offer an olive branch to FMPR in an attempt to wool them back to the AFT? Can it be that Change to Win and Dennis Rivera have opened up a border war and Randi has decided to put up a fight for the 45,000 members as a sign of the new leadership in the AFT to come?

On other issues at the March DA, which I didn't attend due to my being in London meeting with the Queen, who has asked me to manage the Crown's financial affairs on the recommendation of Michael Bloomberg (thanks for the biz, Mike), we will soon be hearing from a gaggle of people - check the ICE blog for the latest.

In the meantime, Marian Swerlow was kind enough to share her extensive notes from the Feb. DA and even though the March DA is already passed, it is worth reading these to get the full context of what is going on. For many years when I published the hard copy of Ed Notes, Marian's DA reports were a regular feature. Marian's analysis is her own and not that of TJC of which she is one of the leaders.

One point I would add to her report is the almost insane reaction of Unity to ICE's attempt to place an item calling for a motion on reopening the contract on letter in the file over an increase in U-ratings (which the UFT denies.) Since we published the reso on our blogs and Randi is one of our main readers (maybe the only) Unity rushed out their own toothless version (oh, the poor trees that die for their hubris) and unveiled it at around 6pm when Randi filibustered the New Motion period to that time (she said she HAD to do the new motion so she would not have to read about her cancelling the time (as she did a few times this year) on this blog. Shouldn't she be spending ALL her time trying to get Hillary elected?)

This all got me into some hot water with some of my ICE colleagues because I was the one who is always in favor of putting out stuff out there in advance but my buddies argue that Unity is so weak in thinking on their feet, we should just bang them with the stuff the day of the DA. I used to do some of the same stuff at DA's, hiding behind someone bigger and just holding my card up. Then I used to move around the room but they seemed to have spotters. I was ready to come in drag but luckily retired.


UFT February Delegate Assembly Report
February 6, 2008
by Marian Swerdlow
UFT Delegate, FDR High School, Brooklyn

(The views expressed in these notes are those of the author alone. They do not necessarily reflect the positions of any caucus.)

Perhaps the best part of the lamentable D.A. experience is that when you walk in the door, almost a dozen UFT members are handing out caucus literature, individual screeds, resolutions or proposed amendments. Since the discussion on the floor is almost completely controlled by Weingarten's rigid chairing, this is the freest part of the D.A.

On Feb. 6, the lit being distributed included Norm Scott's half-page of Ed Notes, asking such trenchant questions as "how [could] the UFT [have] supported Clinton without going through an official endorsement process" and "Did [New Action] mention how many of the NA leadership are on the UFT payroll?" New Action, the Unity-caucus sponsored "opposition" had a leaflet, too, which (no surprise) "asks you to support all resolutions on today's agenda." Another UFT member was giving out a "Resolution Protesting Repression Against Puerto Rican Teachers." The FMPR, which represents teachers there, broke several years ago with the AFT (the UFT's parent union, controlled by the national counterpart of the Unity caucus). It violated Puerto Rico's version of the Taylor Law by authorizing a strike after two years of working without a contract, so the government decertified it (took away its legal right to represent the teachers). My own caucus, Teachers for a Just Contract, was there with the rest, handing out a leaflet calling on members to organize to "defend the rights Weingarten and Unity haven't gotten around to giving back yet." And, of course, Unity was there with a leaflet boasting about its "achievements": the 55/25 retirement option they've wringing mileage out of since 2005 and the right to remove letters from the file after three years (which in 2005 replaced our previous, much more useful, right to grieve "unfair, inaccurate" material immediately).

President Weingarten began her "President's Report" by talking about the NY Times' story on January 21 exposing the fact that as many as 2,500 teachers in 140 schools were being rated by the DoE by their students' progress on tests. The DoE was considering how to use the data collected this way: "While officials say it is too early to determine how they will use the data, which is already being collected, they say it could eventually be used to help make decisions on teacher tenure or as a significant element in performance evaluations and bonuses. And they hold out the possibility that the ratings for individual teachers could be made public. ‘If the only thing we do is make this data available to every person in the city — every teacher, every parent, every principal, and say do with it what you will — that will have been a powerful step forward,' said Chris Cerf, the deputy schools chancellor who is overseeing the project. ‘If you know as a parent what's the deal, I think that whole aspect will change behavior.'"

The most shocking part of the story for some of us, however, was that "the United Federation of Teachers, the city's teachers' union, has known about the experiment for months." Weingarten tried to spin this, claiming, "I told you I was worried about it." She hammered away at the message that it could not be used for tenure decisions. But if it were, all the UFT would do is bring a lawsuit. And that could help only when est scores were explicitly cited when the teacher was refused tenure. What if other pretexts were given for denying tenure, when test scores were the real reason? The UFT could do nothing then. And, perhaps more galling, the DoE is threatening to "make this data available to every person in the city": a shaming technique which would have a powerful negative effect on the teachers. Weingarten said nothing about stopping the DoE from doing this, because it can't be done with a lawsuit. It would take the kind of militant pressure she's spent her years in office downplaying. Perhaps she did tell the D.A. she was worried about this experiment, but she should have made it clear to the DoE that the union opposed this, and mobilized us to prevent it.

At Weingarten's wish, the agenda was shifted so that two resolutions she wanted would be "rolled into" her president's report, one on this "value added" testing pilot program, and the other on the across-the-board cuts to the budgets of each and every school - 1.75% immediately and another 5% in September - that had been announced suddenly to principals that week. Kit Wainer, who was our ICE-TJC candidate for UFT President back in the spring, commented to me that these cuts, "are the City's answer to the court's decision in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case ordering more funding for schools. They show the complete failure of the UFT's strategy of using the courts to increase school funding, and that only a militant strategy can succeed."

"There is a real worry about the economy," Weingarten began, citing a "stress on schools. Politicians are doing budget cuts. On the state level, Spitzer did not do a budget cut. CFE equals contracts for excellence. They all said it was solved. The amount to New York City schools was $4.3 billion over the next five years. This is what Spitzer did: contracts for excellence, $2.3 billion this year to be used for smaller class sizes, middle school reform, the rest is operating expenses. Plus the mayor pledged $2.2 billion, of which $1.5 billion is for ‘fair student funding.' In December, contracts for excellence were done, and the most important feature was that in K to 3, average class size was supposed to be twenty, 4 through 12, 23, in the next four years.
"So, what happened?" she continued, "January was a big setback, budget wise. The state, Spitzer has pledged not to put in a tax increase. So he said, we aren't going to cut the budget, but we cannot give you everything we promised. Three hundred instead of five hundred million dollars. We said, yes, we understand, there is a downturn, but the money has to be restored. Number two, building, how to lower class size if we don't have the buildings? That is why we supported Bloomberg's $13 billion capital plan. The second thing the governor did was say, ‘the deal you made with Pataki is not my deal.' He doesn't want the second part. We say both parts have to be kept. The last piece is the city piece. I'm sure principals ran to you, ‘What is the UFT going to do about this?' The mayor never before made the schools a part of the cuts. The midyear cut: the principals have bought a pig in a poke. They are in charge. How is it that $100 million in cuts can come immediately out of schools? How could they tell them -? How are they ‘in charge'?"
She argued vehemently that there was a great "difference" between our plight with regard to the value-added testing situation on the one hand, and the budget cuts on the other. She claimed that when it came to the value added testing "we have a tremendous arsenal: by the contract, the evaluation system is closed. This is a slam dunk. The contract is closed. Unless we make a mistake . . ." To me, that seems like a big loophole in light of the recent past. Of course, Unity calls its mistakes "victories."

On the budget, she went on, "There's no legal way" to stop the cuts. That's exactly the problem. The Unity leadership has moved further and further away from even the window dressing of the tame demonstrations it once used to clothe its courtroom and lobbying strategy. It has shed even the pretense of relying on the members' activism to gain its ends. As thin as that veneer was, its abandonment actually does coincide with the deplorable and relentless string of losses we have endured as members - we are working harder, working longer, under worse conditions, with fewer protections and rights, and our real wages have barely kept pace with the skyrocketing costs of city housing, transportation, and tuition.

"The only way we can help," Weingarten continued, "is to form a coalition, be out on the streets, make a lot of noise, fight the budget cuts on behalf of the children. We have to have ten thousand members out." It isn't on our own behalf, she said, since "because of the 05, 06 contracts, they can't fire anyone. No one can say we are protecting our jobs, because our jobs are protected." But hundreds of our members have become ATRs through no fault of their own, an awful predicament. They are denied the most basic professional rights: they can be sent to any school, given any program, and their program and session can even be changed day to day. So we need to protect our members against becoming ATRs. And we should make no apologies for doing what a union should do: protect the rights of its members.

The first speaker Weingarten called from the floor was Michelle Bodden, V.P. for the Elementary Schools. She told Weingarten she was "wonderful." Then Jonathan Lessuk from the Museum School proposed an amendment to set a date for the rally for Thursday, February 14. However, he and others who supported his amendment made it very clear it was fine with them if some later date was substituted. Weingarten called on a string of members of her Unity Caucus, who all found various pretexts to oppose this resolution, simply because it came from an ordinary, school-based chapter leader. Three of these Unity Caucus speakers in a row identified themselves as "Executive Board" members, because they do not work full-time in any school, they work for the UFT, i.e., their jobs depend on Weingarten's pleasure. Naturally, they found any flimsy pretext to support Weingarten. One objection they raised to the amendment was "the proposal for a date for the rally should come from the coalition." This disingenuously ignores the fact that any action the coalition calls will most likely be initiated by its strongest, most organized member: the UFT. One supporter of the amendment, Joan Heymount, offered, "Let's take the Feb. 14 date off the books (i.e., out of the resolution), and take it to the coalition" as a proposal. But the Unity speakers against the rally, in their drive to score points with Weingarten, simply ignored this offer. Because the amendment also proposed involving older students in the rally, Unity speakers ridiculously accused the amendment's supporters of "using students as shields."
Randi Weingarten then called for a vote on the amendment, cynically noting that Feb. 14 was too soon and that "no one actually changed the date," although so many speakers in favor of the amendment had made it clear the specific date was fluid. Since a rally date for March 19 was announced less than a week after this, it's obvious the amendment was rejected mostly because of the Unity leadership's hostility to grassroots initiatives rather than a genuine opposition to the substance of the amendment. The unamended resolution carried.

The next resolution was on the value-added testing. Leo Casey, VP for the Academic High Schools made the presentation. "The DoE told us last spring they wanted to do a study of value added testing. You saw as we saw" the NY Times article, he said, without acknowledging that he was contradicting the claim in that story that the union was aware that individual teachers were being rated. "It is important to understand how intellectually dishonest what DoE is doing is," said Mr. Casey, a man whom many in the UFT opposition would say was quite an expert in intellectual dishonesty. This led to a series of speakers all deploring the inadequacy of this method of rating teachers.

But the union itself has lent legitimacy to the idea of rating teachers by test scores, by agreeing to bonuses for teachers in schools where students show progress in testing. If the union accepts the idea that a school's teachers are responsible and should be rewarded for student test progress, it makes it a lot harder to argue that they are not individually responsible. By accepting the bonus scheme, we've shot ourselves in the foot as far as making a case against evaluation by test progress.

However, we are much more seriously handicapped by a half a decade without even the tamest kind of union-wide mobilization in the streets. We are not weak because we cannot win the intellectual argument about rating teachers, We are weak because we don't have the muscle to pressure the politicians. It is clear to them that the UFT leadership won't defend members' rights, and the DoE can push us around with impunity. We languish as ATRs or in rubber rooms, we work long unpaid hours in school because we fear our bosses, our sabbaticals are rejected at the last minute, we are reduced to yearning for one thing: to reach retirement sooner. Thus the powerful attraction of 25/55, which Weingarten has dangled before us as an imminent victory for more than two years now. "It is now clear sailing," she said, regarding 25/55. Perhaps this time it is finally true.

Weingarten then told us we were going to hear "a rubber room story," from Deborah White, a teacher from Stuyvesant. The rap against her was not disclosed, but Ms. White said it "had to do with a medical disorder." She was in the rubber room for two years. "One of the worse things is the amount of time . . . " she said, "and the conditions. My case should never have been brought to 2030a (process to revoke tenure), and that is true for many people there. The D.o.E. legal department is trying to impress Joel Klein with their statistics. A lot of people end up paying fines. I had a private attorney," she said, "who filed a human rights case for me on the side. I had a good attorney, and an inexperienced, new D.o.E. attorney." She also mentioned that the D.o.E. attorney got sick at a crucial moment in her case. "They have a backlog of four hundred cases, so they really want to settle. They are using 2030a hearings to get older teachers out." Both Ms. White's fine and her U-rating were revoked. "I was lucky."

Weingarten tried to spin this as victory the union won for a member. The story even appeared later in the UFT's New York Teacher newspaper, which said, "The due process tenure system worked in her case."

However, looking at what Ms. White actually said, it reveals her to be a fortunate exception who had much more than the due process system going for her. She happened to have one of the better NYSUT attorneys. Not only that, how many rubber room people are prosecuted by a new and inexperienced D.o.E. attorney who gets sick, to boot? Finally, note that she hired her own attorney, also, who filed a suit on her behalf. Ms. White's case is the "exception that proves the rule," and the rule is that hundreds of UFT members are the victims of an unjust punitive system, and our union gives us no effective protection. The fact that a single person triumphed over the system makes us happy for Ms. White, who fully deserved her complete exoneration. But it should also make us even angrier and more indignant over the vast majority of our colleagues equally deserving of vindication, who suffer without effective recourse.
At this point, it was almost six p.m. and - after almost an hour and a half - the president's report was finally over, and the Staff Director's report was next.

By leaving at this point, I did miss the motions directed to the agenda, but I knew the "Resolution to Ensure Letters in the File Rights" would pass, since it was signed by four of the UFT Vice Presidents and the Secretary. This resolution addresses the possibility that there "has been a disproportionate increase in the number of letters in the file since 2005," when the union leadership negotiated and supported the passage of the contract that took away our right to grieve such letters when they are "unfair" or "inaccurate." If the UFT finds that there has been such an increase, the resolution says the UFT will use a provision of the 2005 contract to "sit down and negotiate the impact of that issue." I'm not sure what it means to "negotiate the impact" of an "issue." We never should have given up that right in the first place. In my school, people have gotten letters for the file for ridiculous petty reasons, or that are inaccurate, since the contract changed. Sometimes my Chapter Leader has been able to informally prevail upon the Principal to remove these letters, immediately or in a given space of time. But there seems no doubt that losing this protection has emboldened the worst supervisors and administrators to follow their inclinations. Weingarten and the entire Unity Caucus should be held accountable for making us all more vulnerable to injustice and harassment.


4 comments:

  1. For anyone reading these old posts, please see "The New Yorker" August 31, 2009 for more information on Deborah White's case.
    Her "medical problem" was that she was an alcoholic. She should never have been allowed inside a classroom.

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  2. "fully deserved her complete exoneration" eh?

    Planning on sticking with this claim, now that we know the reason she was in the rubber room was that she passed out drunk in the classroom?

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  3. It is shocking that children suffered such incompetence on the part of adults who profess to have their interests at heart. Those adults who did step in to remedy the situation were too late to protect the all-important grades and emotional well-being of the students who knew full well there was a problem. Now, that's an old-fashioned education!
    Parents are learning the truth only now when it is too late to seek a correction to the record. We recognized "Patricia Adams" right away. Pity the children who are now a few points short of the marks needed for their college dreams.

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  4. As a former student of the teacher in question, I would like to say that she was one of the best teachers I ever had, a spectacular educator and role model. Although it is incredibly unfortunate that she experienced such problems, she was significantly better at her job and than many, many other teachers that I have had, some of whom were plain old incompetent and continue to be happily employed.

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