Selling the Contract

Making his case, Mulgrew says new contract draws battle lines in "war with the reformers"

PHOTO: Twitter/UFT
Members of the UFT's Delegate Assembly voting to send the proposed contract to the full union membership.

In a candid speech to teachers on Wednesday, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew offered a behind-the-scenes account of the recent contract negotiations with the city and argued that the resulting deal was the union’s best chance at winning a “war with the reformers.”

In an hour-long presentation followed by 40 minutes of questions and answers, Mulgrew promoted the terms of the agreement to the union’s Delegate Assembly, a 3,400-member group of elected teacher representatives. Following a short debate period, where one critic of the plan had his microphone shut off, the assembly agreed to send the proposed contract to the UFT’s more than 100,000 members for a ratification vote.

Speaking in blunt terms, Mulgrew also admitted that the union’s position last year on one controversial part of the new teacher evaluation system was designed to “gum up the works” when it was rolled out this year.

The proposed contract contains several changes to the evaluation system, which the state education commissioner imposed last summer after a long city-union clash over the details. Under the new agreement, teachers would be rated on a rubric of just eight items, down from 22.

A teacher pointed out during the question portion that the union lobbied last year for teachers to be rated on all 22 rubric components rather than just a handful, as the city wanted. At the time, many assumed the union opted for more components because it would give teachers more points to contest if they received poor ratings.

Mulgrew acknowledged as much Wednesday, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by Chalkbeat. Members of the press were not allowed into the meeting, which was held in a banquet hall at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

“It was a strategy decision to gum up the works because we knew what their lawyers were trying to do,” Mulgrew said, referring to city officials. “That’s things I don’t get to say in public when I’m doing them, because we knew they had a plan to use the new evaluation system to go after people.”

Mulgrew said Wednesday that the union began to seek changes to the evaluations as soon as de Blasio took office.

“We had a goal that this year would be the first and only year you would work under the new evaluation system,” he told the teachers.

He also defended a part of the deal that would free some schools from certain contract provisions so they can experiment with different schedules or other changes — a plan some union members have criticized as a way to make traditional schools resemble charter schools. But Mulgrew argued that, in fact, the plan is a way to prove that traditional schools can execute innovative ideas that outmatch those of the education “reformers” who typically back charter schools.

“We are at war with the reformers,” he said. He added later, “Their ideas will absolutely destroy — forget about public education — they will destroy education in our country.”

Earlier in the speech, he singled out former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had sought to improve the city school system by increasing choice and competition, opening new schools and charter schools, and tying consequences to student test scores. Mulgrew said Bloomberg had falsely suggested the city could not afford to increase teachers’ pay, but that Mayor Bill de Blasio had worked with the union to find a way to afford the raises.

“By working with this mayor,” Mulgrew said, “we have come up with a creative way to one more time wink at Bloomberg and say, ‘Gotcha.'”

Mulgrew made clear that the union’s top priority in the contract negotiations was securing retroactive raises for its members, who have gone nearly five years without a contract and missed pay increases that most other city labor groups received.

“It is our position — it is not our God-given right, but it is our position — that we deserve those wages. And that’s what we were negotiating for first and foremost,” Mulgrew said.

Officials have insisted that the city can afford the nearly 20 percent pay bump that the proposed contract promises teachers by 2018 only because the union agreed to find significant healthcare cost savings.

So far, little has been said about how the reductions would be achieved. But Mulgrew said Wednesday that one strategy will be an audit to root out ex-spouses of union members who remain on their former partners’ health plans even after they are divorced.

He also said the union has agreed to find $1.3 billion in health-cost savings over the next four years. Then he announced a new incentive for teachers: The city has agreed that any cost savings over that target amount, up to $365 million, “would go directly to city workers in a one-time bonus check.”

The proposed contract also addresses educators in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, who are on the city payroll but lack a permanent school placement. Some teachers expressed concern Wednesday about an expedited termination process for ATRs described in the deal. Mulgrew reiterated that the process would only kick in after two successive principals document an ATR for misconduct. At that point, he said, an expedited hearing makes sense.

“I believe that fast and fair is in the best interest of anyone who has a disciplinary charge against them,” he said.

After Mulgrew spoke and answered questions for most of the meeting, the delegates were given a little less than 15 minutes to debate the proposed contract.

At one point, a teacher who opposed the deal began to argue with Mulgrew, which led to a dispute over speaking time limits. Eventually the teacher called the debate process “absolutely ridiculous and completely undemocratic.”

“Now you’re out of order,” Mulgrew replied, and called for the next speaker to begin talking.

A few minutes later, Mulgrew called a vote to send the contract proposal to the full membership, which he said was “overwhelmingly” approved.

After the meeting, some teachers criticized the union for giving opponents of the deal little time to make their case. Others complained that the union only released a detailed summary of the agreement the day of the meeting, limiting their ability to prepare questions.

“It was almost like a blind vote today,” Michael Kerr, a Brooklyn dance teacher, told Chalkbeat.

Others denounced certain parts of the deal, including the new ATR rules and the way it disburses the retroactive pay in payments spread over several years.

“If the contract expired in 2009, then why should we get the retro pay in 2020?” asked Marie Baker, a Bronx school librarian.

But many teachers said they supported the deal for economic reasons, and because they thought it would make a challenging job more manageable.

“I think it’s an excellent contract,” said Joyce Baldino, a Brooklyn teacher. She said her colleagues also back the deal — especially a provision that allots time during the school day for teachers to collaborate and communicate with parents. “We finally have time to do all the things that we’re already doing as professionals.”

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School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede