Contract For Change

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The contract, approved last year, also includes a provision that allows schools to sidestep seniority hiring requirements that most unions hold sacred. If 75 percent of a faculty agrees, any school in the city can form a committee to hire teachers for open positions. The committee is free to hire the candidate it determines is best for the school, regardless of his or her seniority. This is a radical change. In the past, schools were required to hire the applicant with the most seniority. A long-standing provision of most teacher union contracts, seniority rules reward teachers for their years of service but often prevent schools from building a compatible faculty.

The union first approved a limited school-based staffing program in 1994 to give some hiring flexibility to the small high schools that have proliferated in the city. For these schools to work, faculties must share a common vision; they can't just be thrown together by a factory system that regards teachers as interchangeable cogs. Still, the change didn't come without stiff opposition.

Ann Lieberman, a Stanford University scholar, says Feldman's 'genius' has been to make changes without alienating her membership.

"She knew when we started that she was going to get a lot of grief from teachers in the large schools," recalls Beth Lief, president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that has sponsored the creation of 45 small schools in the city. Feldman arranged for Lief to meet with local union leaders to "set the record straight" on staffing and other issues and to answer questions about the new schools, including charges that they would divert resources from traditional schools. Lief uses the word "gutsy" to describe Feldman, who sits on New Visions' board of directors. "She never once raised the contract as a barrier," Lief says. "Never once."

Ann Lieberman, a Stanford University visiting scholar with close ties to the AFT and the NEA, says Feldman's "genius" has been to achieve such changes without alienating her membership. "Bringing these new schools to life flies in the face of all these bargaining agreements they fought for for years," Lieberman says. "It took a progressive, forward-thinking union leader to see this was a good thing."

Still, some would like to see the UFT go further. Peter Steinberg, a retired high school teacher who now works for New Visions, wants the union to spread the word about successful techniques the small schools have developed. As a union chapter leader at Louis Brandeis High School in Manhattan, he frequently opposed the positions of Feldman and the Unity Caucus, the dominant faction in the UFT. "A lot of the caucus is opposed to serious educational change and progressive change," he complains. "She has always been fearful of moving too far out in front of the membership and cognizant of the need to move them along in the process."

Although Feldman gets credit for negotiating greater flexibility for schools, she earns demerits from many New Yorkers for a contract provision that frees city teachers from a number of "administrative duties," such as overseeing homerooms and monitoring cafeterias, schoolyards, hallways, and study halls. The idea is for teachers to spend their time on professional pursuits and leave potty patrol to others. The provision is widely regarded as a sweetener designed to make up for two years with no raises. But Feldman defends the change, saying it will provide additional time for teachers to collaborate. So controversial was the provision that the school board delayed its implementation for a year to plan the transition. Teachers in half the city's 1,119 schools voted to continue doing some of the jobs; still, the school board has spent $70 million to hire aides.

When she advocates closing failing schools and opening them anew, Feldman speaks from experience.

Raymond Domanico, executive director of the Public Education Association, a 100-year-old research and advocacy group in the city, says the change has been "a negative for her leadership" and "of great concern to parents." During Feldman's tenure, he complains, the UFT's chapter chairs--the union's elected representatives in each school-- have gained almost as much power as principals.

UFT leaders also haven't moved decisively enough on the perennial problem of bad teachers. The union's peer-intervention program has worked with just 400 teachers in nine years, only 20 percent of whom actually left teaching.

Of course, when it comes to bad teachers, there's plenty of blame to go around. The central board of education has hired thousands of uncertified teachers to staff the city's schools. Feldman puts the current number somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000, and she's backing the district's move to dismiss some 1,000 who failed a required state exam. These disgruntled teachers have formed an opposition caucus within the UFT that periodically pickets outside union meetings. Feldman, who can hardly support the teachers and be a credible voice for higher standards, calls the caucus "a badge of honor."

Michael Shulman, who unsuccessfully challenged Feldman in this year's UFT presidential election, argues that these teachers should be "grandfathered in" because most have received satisfactory ratings from their principals. A teacher at Fort Hamilton High School in the Bronx, Shulman faults Feldman for "failing on all counts" to secure New York teachers competitive salaries and to ameliorate their often dismal working conditions. His New Action Caucus holds seven of the 89 seats on the UFT's executive committee.

Although Feldman easily won reelection to a two-year term in 1995, her members rejected a contract agreement that year for the first time in the union's history. New Action, Shulman says, helped torpedo the five-year pact, distributing 55,000 leaflets blasting its two-year pay freeze. Although the rejection was a blow to Feldman, teachers eventually approved an agreement that gives them raises in the last three years of the pact. By the end of the contract period, veteran teachers will earn top pay of $70,000 a year, a hefty sum but still far below peak pay for teachers in the surrounding suburbs, where scales top out at around $85,000.

And these suburban teachers don't have to put up with crumbling plaster, rotting window frames, and leaky roofs--all typical features of the buildings that house New York City schoolchildren. In 1994, the UFT sued the city over the pathetic state of its public schools. City officials, the union charged, had failed to maintain a healthy and safe learning environment. The union expects a favorable ruling in that case any day. In anticipation, the UFT communications department has set up a press room decorated with poster-sized black-and-white photos of the decrepit conditions.

Feldman says the salary disparities are less easily remedied. The problem, she has long complained, is that New York City teachers are locked into "pattern bargaining" with other municipal employee unions, a legacy of the city's near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. As a result, teachers' fortunes rise and fall with those of other city workers, like police and firefighters.

This issue was at the root of an uproar late this summer over a pension bill pushed by the UFT and approved by state lawmakers. The measure would have allowed certain teachers to purchase an enhanced pension benefit--breaking a pattern the city set with its other unions. Governor George Pataki vetoed the measure, which was opposed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the board of education. They complained that the bill would have encouraged teachers to retire early and driven up costs, which the union disputes.

Never a patient person, Feldman has even less time to waste now that she has two full-time jobs.

Even though the New York media misreported the details of the complicated bill, the tone of the coverage underscored how little sympathy exists for the UFT. "A boondoggle for the powerful teachers' union," scolded the New York Times. The Daily News called the bill "a rotten apple for the teachers" and said Feldman "bullied legislators for this pension giveaway."

Feldman, a tall, well-dressed woman with an intermittent New York accent, is no bully. She is, however, an effective advocate, most often described as smart and tough. Despite her lifelong love of education, she did not set out to become a teacher. As an English major at Brooklyn College in the 1960s, she got swept up in the civil rights movement and was arrested during the Route 40 Freedom Rides and other protests. Hoping to become a writer, she took up free-lance editing. "I decided to try teaching," she explains candidly, "because I had to go to work."

Once she was installed at Manhattan's P.S. 34, though, Feldman's activist bent found a new outlet. She organized a union chapter at the elementary school and started going to UFT meetings. "It was a very exciting time," she recalls. "There were strikes and demonstrations and all the growing pains of a union."

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