Why don’t Albany, City Hall learn from history?

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UFT Vice President for Middle Schools Richard Farkas (standing) discusses the current fiscal crisis with members from IS 383 in Brooklyn, while UFT District 32 Representative Kathy Sharko (left) looks on.

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English language arts teacher Abigail Moseley has a concern.

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Chapter Leader Joyce Baldino poses a

“Experience teaches wisdom"                     — Bob Marley

Shortly after his election as governor, Andrew Cuomo sent the book “The Man Who Saved New York” to New York’s labor leaders. The book describes how the collaboration between New York Gov. Hugh Carey and New York City’s labor unions avoided possible city bankruptcy during the 1975 fiscal crisis.

While the financial crisis was devastating — 15,000 layoffs, large class sizes, elimination of subjects and building repairs neglected — bankruptcy would have sent the city into an unimaginable chaos. The key union player in this real-life drama was UFT President Al Shanker, who committed $225 million of teacher pension funds to buy Municipal Assistance Corporation bonds and thus help save the city.

The one constant in living and working in our city is that there is seemingly always a crisis of one sort or another. Faced with another budget shortfall in 1990, the UFT again worked with the city and then-Mayor David Dinkins. UFT President Sandra Feldman negotiated, in exchange for teachers deferring monies out of their paychecks (which they got back with interest), a midwinter recess and the first-ever retirement incentive. And after initial member outrage against the city’s proposed two years of zero raises, the UFT was able to reach an agreement in 1995 with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on a contract that also included a retirement incentive. So, let’s fast-forward to early spring 2011.

The governor’s budget calls for a reduction in New York City school aid of $579 million, which accounts for 3 percent of the Department of Education’s budget. While Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg disagree on the impact, the governor says no layoffs are necessary while the mayor states that 5,000 teachers need to be let go, and the voices of those affected are being ignored.

Smoke screens surrounding pensions and seniority layoff provisions in state law are intentionally being created to divide experienced and new teachers and divert public attention. We all know that experience is vital to expertise in all areas. Isn’t that what Mayor Bloomberg told us when he ran for a third term? And New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner recently told the state Legislature that once the new evaluation procedure is in place incompetence can be judged fairly and objectively while assuring due process for teachers.

Labor leaders led by UFT President Michael Mulgrew know that many of the fiscal issues can be resolved through constructive collaboration. That is why they are campaigning for the extension of the so-called millionaire’s tax, which is due to sunset at the end of the year.

After two years of record Wall Street profits and subsequent bonuses, this extension can generate $1 billion in the fiscal year that begins on April 1 and another $5 billion the following year, and avert talk of layoffs and service cuts. If Albany and City Hall are truly serious about addressing the challenges, they must realize that they don’t hold a monopoly on solutions. Sitting down and working with labor has worked in the past, so why don’t they learn from that history?

Speaking about collaboration, absent from a recently held conference in Denver that was hosted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were Cathie Black and Michael Mulgrew. The conference was focused on finding ways for management and labor to work collaboratively to advance hiring, retention, compensation and the development and evaluation of a highly effective work force.

Mulgrew felt it would be hypocritical to attend when the “mayor and the chancellor decided to pit communities against each other over seniority layoffs by saying some would be hurt more than others. That’s not working together for the interest of children, which is what we pledged to do.”

It has been my experience that schools that are highly successful have school leaders that truly collaborate with their staffs, not just give it lip service. I’d be interested in highlighting those organizations so please get back to me at Rfarkas@uft.org with your experience.

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