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As layoff threats multiply, teachers union debates its own

The city’s teachers union doesn’t spend much time fighting opposition from factions within itself, but a new group of teachers critical of many of the union’s work rules are garnering unusual attention from its president.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew spoke at a meeting of Educators 4 Excellence last night, a group started last March by two elementary school teachers in the Bronx. Founded with the goal of injecting teachers’ voices into citywide education policy debates, the organization has attracted Gates Foundation funding and support from prominent groups like Education Reform Now, which is pushing for an end to seniority-based layoffs.

Critics of E4E often say that the organization’s young members are too inexperienced to understand the importance of protecting senior teachers.

Layoffs — how they’ll happen, if they’ll happen — were a topic of conversation from the outset. An early survey of the roughly 70 teachers in the audience showed that the majority of them work in district-run schools and about half had been teaching for three to five years. If the city has to lay off teachers by seniority, they would not be the first to go, but they also don’t feel as though their jobs are untouchable.

Asked if he supports seniority-based layoffs, which E4E opposes, Mulgrew said he wasn’t going to have that debate.

“Chancellor Klein told me before he left: ‘I’m going to pit new teachers against older teachers and I’m going to do it by trying to make it look like we’re doing layoffs,'” Mulgrew said. (City officials deny that Klein ever said this.)

“I said you don’t understand something. The fight should be about not doing layoffs,” he added. He said the union is lobbying Albany to extend a tax on high-income earners, commonly called the millionaire’s tax, and to give some of that money to schools in order to avoid layoffs.

Sydney Morris, one of E4E’s co-founders, asked Mulgrew whether he would support a time limit on how long excessed teachers can remain in the Absent Teacher Reserve, where they are on salary but do not have full-time classroom positions.

Mulgrew dodged the question, saying that the city should place ATR teachers in schools with vacancies, regardless of whether principals want to hire them.

Despite these ideological differences, the audience and union president found common ground bonding over a third, absent party: the Department of Education.

“How many of you have been mentored?” Mulgrew asked the audience, and a sea of hands went up. He paused for a beat. “Ok, how many of you have been really mentored?” Amid laughter, the hands went down.

Members of Educators 4 Excellence are currently working on white papers on topics such as teacher evaluation and tenure, which they will likely present to union officials next month.

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