President's perspective

Mayor, chancellor need to get serious

Michael Mulgrew - 155 x 230

Like you, my heart is heavy with sorrow due to the horror that took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 14, and my prayers, like yours, are with the parents, students and educators affected by this horrible tragedy and with their entire community that has been shattered by it. Twenty small children have lost their lives, and many more have lost their innocence; six of our colleagues were killed as they heroically defended their co-workers and students from the onslaught. The pain and grief caused by this senseless violence reverberate here in New York and across the country.

Only time will heal the wounds suffered at Sandy Hook, but we have reached out to our colleagues in the Newtown Federation of Teachers to offer our support. Both UFT Staff Director Ellie Engler, an expert in safety and health issues, and Lila Ezra, the executive director of the UFT Member Assistance Program, met with the local union’s executive board two days after the tragedy to offer our union’s immediate assistance with counseling and to make available to them an expert school safety team to inspect school buildings in their community. We have also offered to help them establish a counseling program similar to our own Victim Support Program.

Now is a time for us to look after one another so that we can in turn be steady and strong for our students. We must all be vigilant in the coming weeks to see that both our colleagues and the children in our care are coping. It is not unusual for students and school staff to be anxious about their own safety in the wake of such a tragedy. If you see signs of stress, fear or anxiety in your students, be sure to alert the mental health professionals in your school who can assist them. And if you or any of your colleagues need assistance, know that you are not alone. As always, the licensed counselors at the UFT Member Assistance Program stand ready to help.

As we mourn the recent tragedy in Newtown, we must nevertheless move ahead with our work here in New York.

Mayor Bloomberg is playing politics with our schools and the future of our students — and he must stop. With $250 million in state aid for schools hanging in the balance, it is disgraceful that he is playing these games. For the sake of our students, New York City must have a teacher evaluation agreement in place by Gov. Cuomo’s deadline on Jan. 17 — but it is increasingly clear that Mayor Bloomberg does not want to reach an agreement with us and is in fact sabotaging our negotiations.

It doesn’t matter to him that his actions are hurting our kids. Reaching an agreement on a fair teacher evaluation system is not in the interest of the mayor and his cherished “legacy,” which he values above all else. He would rather fight us to the end in the name of “education reform” than construct a fair evaluation agreement for the sake of our kids.

For two years, the UFT has been trying to get to a new teacher evaluation system. Unfortunately, the mayor believes that the purpose of a teacher evaluation system is to punish teachers and hold our “feet to the fire” by publishing our individual evaluations in the newspapers.

That’s why the mayor hates the statewide evaluation law we passed in Albany two years ago. We understood then — and continue to believe today — that our current evaluation system does not support teachers and offers little in the way of due-process protections because too much is left to principals’ discretion. So when we passed the law, we had two main goals: To see that teacher evaluations would be part of a constructive dialogue between teachers and administrators and to guarantee that they would be implemented fairly, with an appeals process that would stop principals from taking punitive measures against educators without just cause.

Not surprisingly, the mayor was nowhere to be seen when we hammered out this agreement with then-Gov. Paterson. Instead of helping, he complained that standardized test scores would count for only 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and objected to the inclusion of a teaching rubric to guide principals’ observations. He went missing last year, too, when we were on the verge of agreeing on an evaluation system for struggling schools and went to Albany to settle the question of an appeals process. He didn’t want our members to have any meaningful appeals process at all.

Now, with just a year left in office, Bloomberg has nothing to lose, and a lot to gain, if we do not reach agreement on an evaluation system for New York City teachers. He knows that we will be blamed if there is no evaluation deal and the city loses money. His strategy is to use that blame to attack us and undermine our political strength and our ability to influence the mayoral elections — since his legacy and the continuation of his education policies all depend on the next mayor. He won’t be able to do it. Our strength is in our members; we have grass-roots power that his political attacks can’t touch.

But he is still doing his best to undermine the negotiations — and we need to make sure our communities know it.

Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott have imposed a bogus deadline of Dec. 21 — almost a full month before the actual deadline set by the governor — to complete negotiations. They are counting down the clock, throwing up false obstacles to prevent us from reaching an agreement. The mayor himself acknowledged in his weekly radio address on Dec. 7 that “there’s no magical date” before Jan. 17 by which the talks must wrap up.

Rather than establishing sham deadlines and pressuring us to agree to a punitive evaluation system by threatening parents with higher class sizes and the loss of teachers and services if there is no agreement in place by the deadline, the mayor and the chancellor should be focusing on reaching an agreement that will actually help make our schools better.

It is ironic that the mayor mentions class size since he and the DOE have repeatedly claimed that class size doesn’t matter. He raises it as an issue when it advances his anti-union political agenda — but not when it would help improve the quality of our kids’ education.

Bloomberg has even stooped so low as to say that he may have to cut money from the fire and police departments and from social services if we can’t strike an agreement. If that’s the case, then why isn’t he doing absolutely everything in his power to make sure we have a teacher evaluation system in place by January?

The mayor is trying to pit one union against another and the parents against the teachers.

The evaluation system we negotiate now will be in place long after Mayor Bloomberg’s administration is just a bad memory. So let me be clear: No deal is better than a bad deal. Deadline or no, we will never agree to a “gotcha” evaluation system, or to anything that we don’t believe is good for teachers, students and schools.

The mayor knows that. That’s why he has proposed a poison pill of an evaluation system that we could never accept. He is itching for a fight with us. It is not impossible to settle on an evaluation system; 633 of New York State’s almost 700 school districts have done just that. We could be one of them if the mayor had the political courage to negotiate honestly and in good faith with us — for the sake of our students and of our city.

But he would rather fight for his bogus legacy, which exists only in his own mind.

Related topics: evaluation
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