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Leave the Kids, Take the Cannoli

One of my personal pet peeves is class size, and as a new chapter leader I thought compliance was quite straightforward — you grieve the oversized classes, and on a bad day you lose and you’re screwed for a term. On a better day you win, kids win, and class sizes are corrected (at least to the extent prescribed by the UFT contract, which still leaves city kids with the highest class sizes in the state).

But I hadn’t counted on fighting City Hall. Whatever City Hall wants, City Hall gets, and unconnected little guys like me, or the 4,500 kids attending our school, are routinely left by the wayside.

It’s not only the kids, of course. When I became chapter leader I learned our school’s UFT chapter had a soda machine in the check-in room. We made some sort of profit from each can of soda, how much I had no idea. The company that filled the machine was kind of cute — they forgot to send checks when I took over.

We called. Nothing happened. Called again. Another excuse. We finally told our contact, whom we knew only by first name, to send us a check or move the machine out. No response. Then we unplugged the machine. Three days later we got a check. The only way to deal with these folks, I thought, is to make them offers they can’t refuse. But they’re small potatoes.

Both our chapter and the cute company learned that weeks later when City Hall rolled in and took over everything. Boss Tweed says there’s one company to do all the vending for the entire City of New York, and when the boss says who does business, there’s no discussion, no appeal, no nothing. Use these machines, and if dozens of mom-and-pop companies (many more honest than ours) are suddenly out of business, too bad for them.

It would be one thing if that line of thinking were consigned to frosty beverages, but it’s “our way or the highway” for pretty much everything. Rules? Wise guys don’t follow rules. But they always look after their friends. Eva Moskowitz has unusual access to the chancellor. Geoffrey Canada, who sat on the board of Learn NY for the Tweed gang, is getting a $100 million building while Queens high schools are short 33,000 seats.

Nowhere is that shortage more profoundly felt than at 250-percent-capacity Francis Lewis High School, where I teach. New kids walk in every day, and with nowhere else to go, and no one new to help, it’s 35 in this class, 40 in that one, and battle your next-door neighbor over that much-coveted extra chair on a fairly regular basis.

To preclude such occurrences, I went to the American Arbitration Association this spring and grieved 34 classes that were in violation of the teachers union contract. We won the grievance, and Boss Tweed was ordered to correct its violations.

Two weeks later I counted over 60 oversized classes. Needless to say, I was not pleased. But when you deal with the bosses, that’s the way things go. Sure, they were ordered to comply. But why should they? What’s the upside in complying with agreements that don’t directly benefit their inner circle? Weeks ago, Lewis requested centrally funded ATR teachers to help cut class sizes, and thus far Tweed has sent precisely one.

Now one is admittedly better than none, but it hardly does the trick for us. So here are our options — we can go back to the arbitrator and work out yet another order for the DOE to ignore. We can then go to court and force an order of compliance.

Of course, by that time, what with 20-some-odd school days left, it won’t make a bit of difference. If you aren’t connected, fighting Boss Tweed is an uphill battle, and your kids are most certainly not among those fabled children who are “first.”

The Tweed gang does what it likes, rules and agreements be damned. Panel for Educational Policy members who defy its edicts might as well be sleeping with the fishes. Children of its favored friends get red-carpet treatment. The other 97 percent of school kids can all go fish, even in the best neighborhood high school in the city.

And fish they do in room 221A of Francis Lewis High School, where my fellow English-as-a-second-language teacher Sylvia Huh endeavors every day of her young life to teach 39 newcomers in a half classroom, in blatant violation of contract, an arbitration decision, and common decency.

No doubt it’s not personal, only business.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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