Two longtime UFT legends stepped down as officers of the union, and their replacements were voted in by the UFT Executive Board on Sept. 24.
Mel Aaronson, who served as treasurer of the union since 1998, was replaced by pension trustee Debra Penny. MaryJo Ginese, until recently the leader of the Supervisors of Nurses and Therapists Chapter, will take over for Carmen Alvarez, who has been the vice president for special education since 1990.
Both former officers nominated their successors and, since there were no other nominees, they were elected to serve out the remainder of the current term, which ends on June 30, 2019.
Aaronson said he became aware of Penny’s expertise when she was a pension consultant in the UFT Staten Island borough office. “It is with great pride and confidence that I nominate her to the position of treasurer,” he told the Executive Board prior to the election.
“It was an honor and a privilege to work with Mel and to learn from him,” Penny said. “There is no greater source of pension knowledge in the country than Mel Aaronson.”
For 28 years, Penny was a special education and early childhood teacher on Staten Island. She became the chapter leader at PS 32 and, about 15 years ago, started working as a pension specialist in the Staten Island borough office. She ultimately left the classroom to work as a UFT educational liaison.
Penny served as the union’s political action coordinator for the borough and a full-time special representative before becoming the UFT borough rep in September 2012. In 2016, she was elected to serve as a teacher-member of the Teachers’ Retirement System board and began working in the UFT’s Pension Department.
Ginese worked for the Department of Education as an occupational therapist for more than 21 years. After her promotion to supervisor of therapists in 2007, she provided clinical support to occupational therapists. Alvarez noted that Ginese “helped empower students with self-advocacy for greater independence as they transitioned from school into the community, and she fostered partnerships with parents to help support the medical and educational needs of their children.”
Ginese served as the chapter leader of the Supervisors of Nurses and Therapists Chapter from 2011 to June 2018. In the spring of 2018, she became Alvarez’s full-time assistant.
“She did an amazing job of helping members to understand the power of this union,” Alvarez added.
“I don’t have the experience Carmen has, but one thing we share is the passion of caring for children,” Ginese said. “I’ve always found that I’m at my best when I’m serving others, and it’s very important to me to carry on Carmen’s legacy in doing that.”
Indeed, Alvarez has been a key voice in the UFT’s efforts to improve education for children with disabilities. She was an early proponent of Superstart Plus, a program created in the early 1990s to educate preschool children with disabilities with their nondisabled peers, which evolved into inclusionary programs across all grade levels.
In 2009, Alvarez also launched the UFT’s There is No Excuse campaign, documenting thousands of cases of legally mandated IEP services going undelivered and getting those violations corrected.
She spearheaded the launch in 2013 of the Positive Learning Collaborative, a consortium led by the DOE and the UFT that supports schools in creating a safe and positive learning environment.
Aaronson is considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on pension matters. He was the president of the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems and he chairs the New York City Municipal Labor Committee’s pension committee. He is also a member of the National Academy of Social Insurance, an organization of 750 of the nation’s most recognized experts on social insurance issues and programs.
“Mel has been committed to making sure we all have a secure retirement,” Penny said, “and we all cannot thank him enough for everything he’s done.”