Teaching Profession

N.Y.C. Unions on Hot Seat at Hearings

By Jeff Archer — November 26, 2003 6 min read
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A series of sometimes-theatrical hearings this month on union contracts in New York City has spotlighted what leaders of the city’s schools say are major barriers to improving instruction.

In five public meetings, ending late last week, the City Council’s education committee graphically dissected the three agreements that govern the work lives of the teachers, administrators, and custodians in the 1.1 million- student system.

The scrutiny comes as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein are struggling to overhaul the system’s governance, giving central-office administrators greater control over instructional issues.

City Council member Eva S. Moskowitz, who heads the council’s education committee, said she called the hearings to show how union work rules still largely determine how the massive district operates. “To be chair of the education committee and not talk about this elephant in the room would have been irresponsible,” she said in an interview.

Testifying that the pacts virtually dictate what goes on in the city’s 1,200 public schools, critics cited provisions that restrict principals in choosing teachers, keep central- office managers from transferring administrators, and even limit the number of tiles a janitor can replace in a given month.

Ms. Moskowitz, a Democrat, claimed that union officials and other political leaders in the city had tried to pressure her to cancel the hearings. She also said some potential witnesses backed out of giving testimony for fear of reprisals, leading her at one point to compare the proceedings to the city’s famed inquiry into police corruption in 1971. Two principals who did testify did so anonymously, with their voices disguised.

Labor leaders, however, blasted the proceedings as an attempt to scapegoat the unions for problems with the city’s recent school improvement efforts.

In her testimony, Randi Weingarten, the president of the powerful United Federation of Teachers, accused Ms. Moskowitz and Mr. Klein of “demonizing” labor groups and of using press coverage of the hearings as leverage in bargaining for the next teachers’ contract.

Jill Levy, the president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals, joined her UFT counterpart in arguing that city officials had misrepresented the contracts and exaggerated their effects on school performance. “Good, mediocre, and bad schools all work under the same contract,” she said in an interview after testifying.

Soviet Style?

Labor-management tensions have been simmering for months in New York City. After agreeing to a 16 percent pay raise for teachers last year, and negotiating a long-awaited new contract for school administrators this past spring, the system’s leadership has become increasingly vocal about what it sees as unreasonable work rules in its labor agreements.

Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican who gained control of the system through state legislation 18 months ago, recently likened the processes called for in the contracts to the way the Soviet Union used to operate.

Mr. Klein, a former Clinton administration antitrust chief handpicked by the mayor to lead the system, likewise told the City Council last week that the labor agreements were “dysfunctional.”

Under provisions in the teachers’ contract, Mr. Klein argued, it takes two or more years to dismiss an incompetent teacher. He also complained about seniority rules that guarantee certain positions in schools to the most senior qualified candidates, regardless of whom the principal would like to hire.

“These are rules that are designed to undermine what the good people in the system are trying to do,” the chancellor said in an interview last week. “The question to me is, is any provision helpful or hurtful to our kids, and to the teachers and principals who are trying to do the right thing?”

Ms. Moskowitz asked building administrators to speak before her panel, but some told her they would face a backlash if they did. “They felt they would be blacklisted,” she said, “that the UFT chapter leader at their school would never forget this and make their lives miserable.”

Instead, the council member played audio recordings of interviews with two principals who weren’t named, and whose voices had been altered by a computer program. One complained about contract rules that prohibit principals from telling staff members how to write lesson plans and recounted that a teacher had handed in a lesson plan written on a paper napkin.

Anthony Lombardi, the only principal who did testify on the teachers’ contract by name and in person, said the agreement hamstrings school leaders in their efforts to direct their teachers’ professional development. He also provided as exhibits copies of the kinds of lengthy letters he said he has to write in order to document poor instruction by teachers before any action can be taken against them.

“You have to work superhard to work around the system,” Mr. Lombardi, who runs an elementary school in Queens, said in an interview last week. “And many times you have to be extremely creative. But should it be that difficult to improve the day-to- day instruction in the building?”

Union Rebuttals

Throughout the hearings, union leaders tried to turn the tables back on the system’s leadership. Every clause in their contracts, they noted, had been agreed to at some point by the city’s negotiators. Ms. Weingarten, whose 100,000-member local is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, further accused Mr. Klein’s administration of being the real micromanagers.

Since taking over the schools, Mayor Bloomberg has reorganized the lines of authority to give the central office more say over what happens in the classroom. His administration also has put in place systemwide instructional programs for reading and mathematics, changes that drew thousands of teachers to a protest at City Hall last month.

“Every minute of the day, and every inch of the classroom, is dictated,” Ms. Weingarten told the City Council during the hearings.

The teachers’ union president also pointed out the UFT’s willingness to experiment with flexibility in work rules. This fall, she proposed piloting an arrangement in which some schools would negotiate their own contracts tailored to their individual needs. (“N.Y. Union Leaders Call for Schools to Write Contracts,” Oct. 1, 2003.)

The teachers’ contract also allows schools to waive certain work rules based on a vote of their teaching staffs.

Ms. Moskowitz said she hoped the hearings draw greater attention to what ultimately are some of the school system’s most influential policy documents.

“There is nothing private about public education,” she said. “The contract is a public document, signed by public officials.”

Before winning a seat on the City Council in 1999, Ms. Moskowitz was a professor of American history and worked as a public-affairs director for Prep-for-Prep, a program that helps gifted minority students prepare to attend independent schools.

Some observers said holding the hearings was a gutsy move for the 39-year-old council member, herself a product of the city’s schools.

“She has now blown any chance of union support,” said Sol Stern, a writer and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, who has voiced his own criticisms about union work rules. “I would say it does take some political courage to stand up to the unions.”

Others questioned whether the proceedings were constructive.

Noreen Connell, the executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a group that supports school improvement in the city, said it was disingenuous to lay so much blame on the unions. Part of the problem, she argued, is that city negotiators in the past have focused more on holding down costs, and less on other matters that affect instruction.

With the contracts for both teachers and administrators now up for renegotiation, she worries that the adversarial tenor of this month’s hearings will lead each side to dig in its heels, instead of open its mind.

“The issues are complex,” Ms. Connell said. “I think the problem with these hearings is that they’re well-suited for tabloid exposés, rather than a real look at the labor- management problems.”

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