Teaching Profession

N.Y. Union Leaders Call for Schools To Write Contracts

By Bess Keller — October 01, 2003 3 min read
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Two high-profile union leaders in New York are calling for teachers’ contracts built largely at individual schools, signaling that, in their view, teachers could do better without lockstep organization from on high.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, has challenged Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to rid some schools of teacher “work rules” in exchange for giving teachers more say over a school’s operations.

“Other than a few ground rules like base salaries and benefits, due process, safety, and those required by law, [the schools] can start with a blank slate and write their own, streamlined contract,” Ms. Weingarten said in a statement issued just before the Sept. 16 start of contract negotiations for the city’s 80,000 teachers.

Just after Ms. Weingarten unveiled her proposal, Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, presented an even more sweeping plan upstate.

Under his proposal, the staff in some schools would begin negotiating their own contracts by the next school year. At the end of three years, bargaining would be decentralized throughout the 38,500-student district’s 60 schools.

Both the UFT and the Rochester union are affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers.

Under Ms. Weingarten’s plan, principals at a group of schools could reportedly negotiate slimmed-down agreements with representatives of their teaching staffs, which would then need to approve the plans.

The offer by the New York City union responds to long-standing criticism of the city’s teacher work rules, which regulate duties teachers may be assigned and the organization of their work. (“Novice Principals Put Huge Strain on N.Y.C. Schools,” May 29, 2002.)

Many observers say the rules hamstring principals who are trying to raise student achievement. But the union’s proposal, if implemented, could also take back some of the power the teachers’ group has lost as Chancellor Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have reshaped the school system—largely without consulting the union.

Work Rules at Issue

The UFT plan also allowed Ms. Weingarten to pre-empt what is likely to be a demand from the city’s department of education. Indeed, Mr. Klein appeared to one-up Ms. Weingarten by saying through a spokesman that the idea was so good, it should be extended to all schools.

The union president argued that the plan should be limited to one administrative division of the 1.1 million-student school system, perhaps 100 schools, so that size would not undermine its success.

Neither union officials nor the chancellor’s office returned phone calls last week.

Norm Fruchter, the executive director of New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy, applauded the notion of getting rid of the work rules, although he and others noted that some flexibility has been possible under the “school-based option” provision of the current contract.

The rules are a good subject for negotiation this year, Mr. Fruchter added, because salary increases seem out of the question, given the substantial hike the union won last year and the weak economy.

But at least some teachers say scrapping the rules would be a huge mistake. As it is, said Norman Scott, a retired New York City teacher who publishes a newsletter often critical of the UFT, the rules are violated all the time to the detriment of teachers and students.

“The teachers are going crazy” over the possibility of losing the rules, he said.

Tough Sell?

In Rochester, Mr. Urbanski acknowledged that his idea could be a tough sell to his 4,000 members.

“Everything would be fair game, with the exception of the contract’s due-process provisions,” which mandate procedures when a teacher is threatened with a disciplinary action, he said. “I do not think we will have the schools we need when everything has to be the same.”

The district’s superintendent, Manuel J. Rivera, backs the direction of the plan.

Mr. Urbanski, who heads the Teacher Union Reform Network, a national group of union leaders interested in restructuring unions to promote school improvement, said Rochester teachers greeted his proposal with “a great deal of trepidation.”

Many union representatives seem to favor negotiating salary and benefits centrally, he said, while others fear separate negotiations around the district would divide teachers.

“The way [the plan] ends up may not resemble the way it begins,” he conceded. “But it will be a major departure from the norm if [schools] could negotiate anything.”

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