A group of upstate public school teachers are getting involved in a high-profile lawsuit challenging New York’s tenure laws, New York State United Teachers announced on Monday.
A Staten Island judge ruled that seven teachers could become defendants in the case, known as Davids v. New York. The state’s tenure law is already being defended by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, but the judge’s decision means that the group of teachers, with help from union lawyers, can join in the defense.
“We will mount a vigorous defense against any attack on this fundamental and vital protection,” NYSUT President Karen Magee, who has also signed onto the case as a defendant, said in a statement.
The teachers work in schools from White Plains to the Canadian border and include two past Teacher of the Year awardees. They form the second group represented by a teachers union to get involved in the case, which argues that New York’s tenure laws are too protective of low-performing teachers and violate a student’s state constitutional right to a quality education. Earlier this year, a judge said the city’s United Federation of Teachers could intervene as a defendant.
The legal efforts against the state’s tenure laws, which have been criticized for giving teachers job protections after too little time in the classroom and for creating a lengthy discipline process for those accused of incompetence or misconduct, began as two lawsuits filed by two groups of parents. Last month, those cases were consolidated.
Schneiderman and the two teachers unions are likely to file a motion to dismiss the case, which will be followed by a hearing toward the end of the year, Campbell Brown, who heads the advocacy group Partnership for Educational Justice, said in an interview last week.
“Assuming that we win on that and get beyond a motion to dismiss, then the discovery phase begins and we’re off to the races,” Brown said.
Among the teachers now part of the lawsuit is Ashli Skura Dreher, last year’s New York State Teacher of the Year. In her affidavit, Dreher attributes her improvement in the classroom to her job security. “I could not have attained this mastery without the job security afforded by the tenure and seniority laws,” she wrote, according to NYSUT.
The other teachers’ names and a summary of their affidavits, provided by the union, are below:
Seth Cohen, an Earth Science teacher in Troy, a high-needs district forced by budget cuts to eliminate about 80 teaching positions over the last four years. Many Troy students do not have Internet access or a computer at home, making it difficult for students to complete assignments. “None of the problems my school district faces will be rectified by taking away or diminishing the professional safeguards that I and my colleagues were promised when we became public school teachers, and which we earned through years of dedicated service,” said Cohen, who is also a parent and is president of the Troy Teachers’ Association.
Daniel Delehanty, a highly accomplished, award-winning Advanced Placement social studies teacher in the Rochester City School District. Delehanty achieved national board certification in 2011, a symbol of teaching excellence and mastery of his craft. He notes in his affidavit, “As a teacher of U.S. History, I cover many controversial topics in my classroom. For example, one debate-style lesson dealt with gun control. The student-led debate of the pros and cons of gun control resulted in a parent complaint to the superintendent requesting my termination. Without the tenure law safeguards, my career could have been jeopardized by a single parental complaint.”
Ashli Skura Dreher, an award-winning special education teacher at Lewiston-Porter High School, a parent and the 2014 New York State Teacher of the Year. Dreher notes in her affidavit that tenure’s safeguards “further collaboration between teachers in the school community. Without such objective safeguards, in the event of economic layoffs, more senior and highly compensated teachers could be targeted, as could teachers who have spoken out for students or about problems in the school district.” She adds, “My students are the beneficiaries of my many years of hard work and professional development. I could not have attained this mastery without the job security afforded by the tenure and seniority laws.”
Kathleen Ferguson, an elementary teacher in Schenectady, where 80 percent of the district’s nearly 10,000 students are considered economically disadvantaged. She is the 2010 Schenectady City Teacher of the Year and the 2012 New York State Teacher of the Year. Ferguson currently teaches an inclusion class where nearly half her students have special needs. Ferguson’s affidavit states, “The safeguards afforded to me under New York’s tenure laws are important to me. These safeguards allow me to practice my profession in the best interests of the children I teach, with reasonable assurance that I will not be arbitrarily fired or punished.”
Israel Martinez, a Spanish and French teacher and parent, as well as a cross country, track and wrestling coach, in the Niagara Falls City School District, an impoverished community in which about 70 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. His affidavit notes he has daughters in third and fifth grade. “My daughters benefit … as these laws ensure that teachers are afforded the necessary safeguards that allow them to teach without fear of unjust reprisal.”
Richard Ognibene Jr., a chemistry teacher at Fairport Senior High School and 2008 New York State Teacher of the Year. Ognibene is an advisor to the Gay Straight Alliance, which meets regularly to discuss social issues, including how to make the school more welcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. His affidavit notes, “I became a teacher because I cannot imagine spending my life doing anything else. My parents were teachers and I consider it a noble profession. I am dedicated to the children I teach and to my profession. (Tenure) is particularly crucial to me as a public school teacher. Under recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent, when I speak on behalf of my students in my capacity as a public school teacher, I may have no protection under the First Amendment.”
Lonnette R. Tuck, a social studies teacher in White Plains since 1988, a graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, Texas, and a former Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the United States Navy. Her affidavit notes the seniority safeguards provided by tenure are important. “I am an outspoken advocate for my profession and my students. I have attended numerous Board of Education meetings and attended rallies. Additionally, I have faced criticism from parents who were disgruntled over the grades I gave to their children, notwithstanding the fact that the grades were appropriate.”