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Mulgrew mum on negotiations, but offers plenty of praise for city leaders

UFT President Michael Mulgrew
UFT President Michael Mulgrew
Geoff Decker

Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew won’t talk about ongoing contract negotiations, but he is more than happy to praise the city officials on the other side of the table.

“We’re doing our work,” Mulgrew said repeatedly. As for the new leadership in city government, he said, “It’s nice to have people who understand education.”

At stake in those negotiations are billions in retroactive pay for teachers and a number of contentious issues like changes to teacher evaluations. In Crown Heights on Wednesday morning to promote a new partnership that will bring free reading glasses to needy students, Mulgrew indicated that the personalities around that negotiating table were meshing in a way they hadn’t in years.

“Moving education forward is something that we now have an opportunity to do because we now have people who are teachers in terms of the [leadership of the] Department of Education. And we have to make schools about education and not about political ideologies or agendas, which is what has happened for the last 12 years,” Mulgrew said, referring to his clashes with the Bloomberg administration.

As students cycled through eye exams and received new prescriptions in an optometry van parked outside P.S. 335, the union president repeated some familiar goals, including making changes to the teacher evaluation system that was rolled out for the first time this year.

“When it came out, we were like, it’s fine,” Mulgrew said of the evaluation system. “But I think with people who understand education sitting at a table, we’ll be able to come up with a system that makes a little bit more sense and is actually about helping the teachers and not about some craziness that a bunch of lawyers have put their fingers all over—all about a compliance mechanism rather than a support system, which it should be.”

The Wednesday event was a rare appearance for Mulgrew, who has kept a low profile over the last few months. As battles over charter school space and pre-kindergarten dominated the news cycle, Mulgrew chimed in only with short statements sent through union representatives, staying far from the center of the disputes.

Now, he’s focused on winning five years worth of raises for his 125,000 members, who have been without a contract since 2009. Mulgrew took over the UFT just months before its contract expired, making this the first contract he’ll have negotiated as union president.

The union also wants to place more than 1,000 teachers who are part of the “absent teacher reserve” pool due to budget cuts, school closures or for disciplinary reasons, into full-time positions.

The union’s goal is to wrap up the contract talks before the end of June so changes can be in effect for the next school year. Those could include changes to school schedules, like adding time to the day or adding minutes dedicated to professional development.

Mulgrew has spent much of his tenure at war with the Bloomberg administration over school closures, charter school co-locations and ill-fated contract talks. Four months after Bloomberg departed office, Mulgrew continued to bring up the union’s tenuous relationship with the city in recent years.

Now, the union president is projecting a much different tone. Mulgrew declined to criticize de Blasio’s singular focus on pre-kindergarten, which some have said has come at the cost of other education initiatives, and offered praise for the chancellor as well.

“It’s very nice to have an elected official make a promise during a campaign and then say, ‘I’m going to get it done,’” he said. “Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña has been doing an immense amount of work and she understands what needs to be done.”

Though Bloomberg is gone, Mulgrew and the union still face resistance from advocacy groups seeking to continue the previous administration’s policies. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis repeated her group’s call to reduce the Absent Teacher Reserve by taking its teachers off the city’s payroll.

“It’s nice to hear that the adults are getting along, but will this lead to better outcomes for kids or will it put 1,000 ineffective teachers back into the classroom?” Sedlis said in a statement. “That’s what really matters.”

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