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With an eye on de Blasio, UFT finally signs onto teacher grants

With Mayor Bloomberg on his way out, there’s been a small crack in the icy relationship between the city education department and the teachers union.

The thaw is taking place over a $12 million grant that the city is eligible for to fund new ways to develop, retain and compensate top teachers. The purpose is to improve teacher retention in high-poverty schools, where turnover is most acute.

After holding out for months, the United Federation of Teachers signed off on a grant application that the Department of Education submitted just ahead of a 5 p.m. deadline today. Signatures from the teachers and principals unions were required, but the UFT had declined to offer one for months.

Over the summer, Chancellor Dennis Walcott blamed the UFT’s unwillingness to support the grant bid on union intransigence. Education officials accused the union of trying to negotiate work benefits that were unrelated to the grant.

But a lot has changed since then, most notably the election of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who takes over next month after campaigning as an anti-Bloomberg candidate.

“The main thing that’s changed is that a new administration will be implementing that grant and that one of its stated priorities is teacher retention,” said Amy Arundell, the UFT’s director of personnel and special projects.

While the Bloomberg administration has launched some teacher retention initiatives, Arundell said its philosophy has focused too much on rewarding top teachers and punishing low performers. (Bloomberg’s rhetoric on teacher quality and efforts to rid the city of weak teachers led the ice to form in the first place.) She said the union prefers a shift toward greater professional development for all teachers and additional support for novice teachers.

Teacher quality is briefly mentioned in de Blasio’s education policy book, but he did not make it a prominent part of his campaign.

The funds are available through New York’s Strengthening Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Grants, a $72 million pot of money from the state’s $700 million in federal Race to the Top winnings. The grants seek to spur districts to rethink how teachers are paid.

Currently, teacher pay in New York City is determined primarily by years of experience and through earning higher education and profession development credits. The current round of grants require districts to develop “career ladder” programs for top teachers, something that the UFT has long advocated. But it also mandates that teachers’ ratings be considered to be eligible for promotions and raises, a policy that unions have historically opposed.

Update: The city tweaked details of the grant application to hew closer to what the UFT originally asked for over the summer, Arundell said. Less money go toward creating assessments or hiring talent coaches, both tied to implementing teacher evaluations, than the city originally wanted. A city official said that $4 million of the grant would still go toward teacher evaluation implementation but wouldn’t say how much less it was than what officials wanted in its summer application.

Arundell said city officials also showed more of a willingness to collaborate with the union to write the grant, something that was absent the first time around.

“They agreed to almost every change we suggested,” Arundell said.

Department of Education spokesman Devon Puglia did not respond to questions about the details of the application. In a statement, he thanked the teachers and principals unions for signing off on the application — after noting that previous negotiation stalemates have cost the city has “tens of millions of grant dollars for City classrooms.”

“Everything that is listed in the grant application are things we believe in and would implement well,” he said.

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