Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

This Seems Familiar

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Hot on the heels of the United Federation of Teachers’ annual union rally this past Sunday, Hizzoner Bloomberg’s threatened yet another massive round of cuts to the schools and 2,500 teacher layoffs.

I can’t help but feel I’ve heard this one before, and though I’m no longer on the chopping block like I was the last two times he demanded his pound of flesh from the schools, it’s disheartening to see that no real progress has been made in the interim. It really is, consequently, a two year cycle: I was laid off in 2011 after a round of ultimatums between the NYCDoE and the UFT, and I was laid off in 2009 after a round of ultimatums between the NYCDoE and the UFT. Each time, the school budgets were cut, but the teachers’ jobs were saved, meaning that DC37 – the support staff – had to make up the gap.

I’m not surprised that Bloomberg is continuing to use this plan, as it’s worked for him in the past and, as a lame duck and a long shot for national office, he has no particular reason to concern himself with the blowback of his policies. Of course, it’s not as if anybody’s really paid close attention to the travails and tribulations of our nation’s largest school system and most powerful union anyway. Education reform has always been a snoozer, and until very recently, unions have been nothing but vilified in the national press.

I mention this all, however, because I got to attend the union’s annual rally at the Waldorf Astoria on Sunday (and the irony of a union holding a function in a notable bastion of privilege was not lost on me or the other attendees) where I got to jaw about their principles of solidarity. The points I made were twofold:

  1. Until the UFT figures out how to reattach teacher retention to student success, they will always be working from a position of weakness in their deliberations with the city. When their historic strike in 1967 divorced the two, standards slipped and a succession of poor alternatives have created the dysfunctional system we have today. More importantly, they have opened themselves up to a constant barrage of withering criticism from city administration and a black eye in public image: To the union’s eyes, what’s good for the teacher is good for the student. Not so in many parents’ eyes. Thus, they must be the ones to dictate how they will resolve this issue, and they must be proactive in bringing it to the city before the city comes up with a policy they don’t like, or else they lose the initiative and this will continue to happen. They must bend lest they break, and being the most powerful union in the country, they cannot afford to break.
  2. I cannot believe this has to be emphasized, but until the UFT extends a hand to the far broader, but much weaker, sister union of DC37, unionism itself will continue to weather defeat after defeat. Every UFT victory is soon followed by a DC37 defeat, and where they should be standing together, they are divided and suffering. DC37 would be a powerful ally with the UFT in securing public support and shoring up public image, but the UFT must first defend DC37 from the city. The only reason I can imagine that they are not already doing so is class division: They view themselves as educated professionals whereas DC37 are of largely lower positions, and if this is the case, this cannot and must not continue.

So I made these arguments, and unsurprisingly, their reception was largely based on the rank of the person I was talking to within the union hierarchy. The fact that I was a union member until I was laid off should be illustrative in just how they are hurting themselves with this current course. I would like not only to be working within New York Public Schools, but I would also like to be the member of a responsible and responsive union. That I am not, despite repeated attempts, is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed. Even were I to be hired in this atmosphere, I suspect next time a fight broke out, I’d be the first to be laid off once more. That is no way to run a union.

Bureaucratic Ineptitude

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A more ridiculous example of bureaucratic wrongness has struck me. Several, actually, which I’ll be posting about more or less regularly, if but for posterity, for it’s wrong and terrible to subject non-DoE friends to the constant onslaught of horror stories during our weekly pub crawls when I can just post it here.*

I return to this topic because Bloomberg came to the decision, after the latest round of ultimatums to the UFT, that he wasn’t going to lay off teachers after all. This filled me with dread, because the last time he said that and the UFT cheered their own might, he instead took his pound of flesh out of DC37, myself included – for, you see, computer technicians and technology coordinators are not covered in the technology section of the budget, which Bloomberg has kept sacrosanct by virtue of ensuring that none of it can be used to pay salaries.

What that meant was that the same year my school – my former school – spent $300k on new computers, SMARTBoards, tablets and associated errata, under the “use it or lose it” style of budgetary discretion principals tend to abide by, they laid off the one staff member responsible for their upkeep and usage.

My school – my current school – has spent around that much on new equipment this past school year. We’ll see if I’m still here come October.

*DoE friends are all alcoholics and incapable of talking about anything else but the system, so they lose nothing in the bargain.

Rubber Rooms

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Another article on the New Yorker about the incredible inefficient bureaucracy that creates the situation of the Rubber Rooms, but even more incredible is the sense of entitlement in some of the teachers in it. To quote,

Neither the Mayor nor the chancellor is popular in the Rubber Room. “Before Bloomberg and Klein took over, there was no such thing as incompetence,” [elementary school teacher] Brandi Scheiner, standing just under the Manhattan Rubber Room’s “Handle with Care” poster, said recently… “Before Bloomberg and Klein, everyone knew that an incompetent teacher would realize it and leave on their own,” Scheiner said. “There was no need to push anyone out.”

*cough cough BULLSHIT*

It takes between two and five years for cases to be heard by an arbitrator, and, like Scheiner, most teachers in the Rubber Rooms wait out the time, maintaining their innocence. One of Scheiner’s Rubber Room colleagues pointed to a man whose head was resting on the table, beside an alarm clock and four prescription-pill bottles. “Look at him,” she said. “He should be in a hospital, not this place. We talk about human rights in China. What about human rights right here in the Rubber Room?” Seven of the fifteen Rubber Room teachers with whom I spoke compared their plight to that of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay or political dissidents in China or Iran.

Except, y’know, the full pay, vacation time, union-supervised arbitration and the lack of torture. The rest of the article speaks to the ridiculously high satisfactory ratings (98.7%) and the difficulty even in dealing with those who fail to make it – along with a list of probable causes, ranging from Teach for America to the United Federation of Teachers – but my money is still on the tenure track and the lack of any direct relationship between student success and teacher retention.

As an aside, this isn’t to say that I want the UFT’s back broken. Amidst the hiring freeze and budget crunch thanks to the economic downturn, I’ve been in the unenviable position of witnessing the layoffs of five teachers (including the UFT rep), three in the maths and sciences… while the school band got new uniforms and instruments. I’ve also been in the awkward position of having to serve as a witness in the arbitration of a rubber roomed teacher – it was settled out of court; I don’t want the blood of somebody’s career on my hands – that largely boiled down to politics. It’s a dirty world out there.


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I remember at one point that I said that union leaders in the schools tended to be theatrical and self-serving.

Well, there’s theatrical, and then there’s theatrical.

Good God

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Forgive the time gap between posts.

Unions have a mixed history in NYC as of late. They’re practically the last bastions of real power for the rank and file left in the country (I think the UFT is the only part of the AFL-CIO that isn’t currently being gutted through a complete destruction of its parent industry), but they’re victims of their own success. Read the rest of this entry »

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