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Testimony regarding the New York City FY21 executive budget


Testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Finance and Subcommittee on Capital Budget

My name is Michael Mulgrew, and I am the President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the more than 190,000 UFT members, I would like to thank Finance Committee Chair Daniel Dromm, Capital Budget Subcommittee Chair Vanessa Gibson, and all of the members of the finance committee and capital budget subcommittee for holding today’s public hearing on the New York City (NYC) fiscal year 2021 executive budget. I would also like to thank education committee Chair Mark Treyger, and all of the members of the education committee, for their continuous support and advocacy during this time.

I would be remiss if I did not start by acknowledging these unprecedented times and all of the service our courageous essential workers have and continue to provide our great city. I would like to point out that while our educators may not be physically present in our classrooms, more than ever before they continue to be present in the lives our students and their families. In just a matter of one week, our city’s educators did the unthinkable, the unimaginable, something we thought was years away from becoming a reality. In just a matter of one week, our city’s teachers moved our entire education system from one that’s delivered in the classroom to one that is virtually conducted online from home.

Some say it could not be done, but I say we rose to the occasion during this difficult time and we valiantly continue to pursue our journey to triumph. It has not all been perfect, as we have hit many bumps along the road, but today I can say with pride that our city now has an even stronger teaching workforce that is ready to tackle any and all of the challenges that lie ahead to provide the best education we can to our students.

Focus on school funding: Protect direct services to students

I understand that these are extraordinarily tough budgetary times, with possibly more financial challenges for years to come. However, we have to be strategic in the way we manage our city’s fiscal standing. I understand that the executive budget proposes $827 million in cuts to education across the current and upcoming fiscal years, and I would like to let the members of this council know that we do not take this lightly. We are also concerned about the possibility of additional proposed reductions should our state government need to enact budgetary cuts due to a lack of support from Washington D.C.

In collaboration with our state and national affiliates, NYSUT and AFT, and our New York congressional delegation, we are working to ensure that the education stabilization fund is replenished and our state and local governments receive unrestricted funds to make up for the significant budget gaps we see. I would argue that our advocacy has been successful. The U.S. House of Representative’s Heroes Act includes $90 billion for the education stabilization fund, $500 billion for state governments, and $375 billion for local governments. We will now continue our relentless advocacy to push the Heroes Act through the U.S. Senate and finally to the President’s desk for signing.

With these efforts in play, we make the resounding argument that now is not the time to consider cutting programs that service students and school communities, particularly funds for mental health services. We need to protect FY21 school budgets and prevent cuts to programs that provide direct services to students. If cuts are absolutely necessary, we urge the New York City Council to find savings in the Department of Education’s central administration across positions and contracts that do not provide direct services to students and school communities.

This is not the time to consider cuts to programs that directly impact school budgets. This includes the proposed $100 million cut to fair student funding, which will first hurt schools serving our most high-need students, and the other proposed cuts that will devastate school level programs including $40 million for school allocation memoranda and $49 million for various equity-related programs, including the counseling initiative Single Shepherd. While funding for the Summer Youth Employment Program does not affect school budgets, we are very concerned about the proposed elimination of this valuable program.

When we hear cuts to school budgets, it’s important that everyone understand that this translates to less education, less childcare, less counseling, and less mental health support. So many of students and their families are living a level of trauma that we have never seen before, and our membership and our programs have been there for them every step of the way. We are firmly committed to expanding our level of support during the remainder of this academic year, through the summer, and the upcoming school year, but we need your commitment to ensure we have the resources and tools to enact his promise.

Focus on mental health at the school level during COVID-19: United Community Schools (UCS) & Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC)

As you know, UFT programs get your investments directly to students and teachers—a reality check that has never been more important. All UFT programs are designed to eliminate barriers to learning and so are particularly well-suited toward overcoming the academic, emotional and financial challenges the COVID-19 crisis has created for our students and their families. In particular, our UCS and PLC programs are reinventing their operations every day during this public health and economic crisis to make sure more students and more family members have access to direct services.

United Community Schools

I want to first thank the City Council for supporting UCS since its inception in 2012. Now encompassing 31 schools in New York City and serving over 20,000 students, our UCS schools support a higher percentage of our most vulnerable students than the system as a whole. UCS school staff is experienced in overcoming poverty and other barriers to learning so that low-income students, English language learners, students with special needs, and those living in temporary housing and their families can flourish. Compared to all other NYC public schools, UCS schools enroll 4.0 percentage points more English language learners, 5.1 percentage points more of students with disabilities, 5.9 percentage points more of students living in temporary housing, and a full 15.2 percentage points more of low income students.

The work runs the gamut from the state’s first full-service eye care center to open inside a school to on-site mental health services and enrichment programs ranging from drum lines to debate teams. The results: academic performance, attendance, school climate and parental involvement are improving in all these schools. The progress made by elementary and middle school English language learners enrolled in UCS schools has outpaced those enrolled in all other NYC public schools since the 2016-17 school year; proficiency rates among these students increase from 54.6% in the 2016-17 school year to 62.4% in the 2018-2019 school year. Similarly, students with disabilities in UCS schools have exhibited a 9.1 percentage point increase in ELA proficiency during the same timeframe, compared to a 5.5 percentage point increase exhibited by students with disabilities in all other NYC public schools.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, our UCS Community School Directors (CSDs) stepped up to the challenge. They are making sure academic tutoring continues for students; spiritual wellness, counseling and therapy are provided remotely; extracurricular activities, including music and sports, are available remotely; and some CSDs have created a parent chat to have experts speak to parents directly. Our UCS social workers continue to serve and have enhanced their role by observing virtual classrooms to identify struggling students, conduct¬ing outreach to find students who have not logged on to virtual classrooms, and providing counseling to families who have been directly affected by COVID-19. The UFT is asking for $7 million to expand these direct services to students and school communities in the upcoming school year. Understanding the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on low-income communities, UCS schools will play a vital role in supporting these students and their families. We seek a significant expansion of mental services by hiring more social workers, who have been instrumental in providing direct clinical support and program¬ming at our UCS schools.

Positive Learning Collaborative

Since 2013, PLC has been providing strategies and tools that replace punitive discipline with supportive interventions. Suspensions in PLC schools have fallen nearly 54% compared to the 31% decrease across all other New York City public schools, and violent incidents have fallen 44%. While school climate in these PLC schools has been on the rise, so have the academics, with math and ELA test scores either having met or exceeded average gains across all other New York City public schools. PLC is working to expand to 50 schools, which will focus on systems to support COVID-19 recovery.

PLC is particularly well suited to support schools as they work through the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is the greatest crisis of our time. We are all losing family members, friends and our sense of safety. This pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated underlying disparities in access to services. Removing the barriers to access and opportunities has become a matter of life and death.

PLC has been playing a critical role during the current public health and economic crises. Since remote learning started in March 2020, PLC has been conducting ongoing needs assessments for each of its 25 schools so they can provide the most needed interventions. PLC is providing virtual support to school leaders and educators through restorative circles focusing on grief, loss and trauma so they can care for themselves and learn strategies to support students and families facing the same challenges. PLC has begun developing and sharing content via social media platforms in the areas of self-care, yoga/mindfulness and providing professional development for staff so they are better able to help students when they return to school buildings. Our data shows daily interactions with PLC on social media to be in the tens of thousands.

The UFT is asking the City Council to invest $2 million to provide more support to school communities. School staff will need a greater level of support to be prepared to meet their own needs as well as the needs of the children and families they serve. PLC has the expertise to support schools in responding to the mental health needs of their communities.

Focus on remote teaching and learning at the school level: UFT Teacher Center

It would be naïve for us to think that some form of remote teaching and learning will not be with us during the upcoming academic year. On April 29, I penned an op-ed in the Daily News enumerating what we will need to get our school buildings reopen in the fall. I mentioned the challenges we need to think through as we considered what a reopened school building looks like with social distancing, and the reality is that a reopened school building will not be what we are accustomed to. If staggered schedules in schools become our new normal, then remote learning will have to be intricately woven into what will be our hybrid learning model. The UFT Teacher Center (UFTTC) has already stepped up in the area of providing professional development to educators on remote learning and teaching and is ready to continue to be the main source of professional development for our educators in school years to come.

The UFT’s nationally recognized Teacher Center program provides educators with relevant, hands-on, research-based professional learning, offered by experienced NYC teachers. UFTTC mentors new teachers and strengthens their competency; helps experienced professionals deepen their knowledge and skills; and empowers educational leaders across diverse communities to share their expertise with colleagues. The UFTTC program operates in 115 school sites across all five boroughs, each staffed with experts who work with classroom educators. They also offer citywide professional learning on issues such as supports for multilingual learners and students with disabilities, strategies for integrating state standards into literacy and math instruction, and effective use of educational technology. Through this network, the UFTTC provided over 127,000 hours of professional learning to teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, school staff and parents in New York City during the 2018-19 school year.

During the COVID-19 health crisis, the UFTTC is playing a vital role in keeping NYC educators linked to each other and connected to their students. The UFTTC staff has become the critical source of deep knowledge in both the technical aspects of distance learning and in providing resources for online in¬structional material and virtual classroom support. At a time when most school buildings are shuttered, UFTTC staff is answering hotline calls from teachers across the city that need help with their virtual classrooms, and working with staff at UFTTC sites to provide supports tailored to those schools’ needs. UFTTC can help educators translate classroom lessons that are built around personal interaction into an online format and are currently developing online professional learning around both remote learning tools and content.

We thank the New York City Council for your first-time allocation last year, and this year request $9 million to expand our programming to additional schools across the city (including schools in the Bronx Plan), to provide professional development on remote learning as we continue to adjust due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Additionally, UFTTC is well suited to help educators align their classroom content to the state’s new Next Generation Learning Standards.

Focus on supporting all NYC educators: Teacher’s Choice

After many years of strong advocacy from this City Council, we finally achieved a momentous milestone last year and baselined Teacher’s Choice. I want to thank you all again for this great achievement. You all understood that the most direct way to get needed classroom supplies into students’ hands is through Teacher’s Choice.

Teachers buy everything from pencils and notebooks to microscopes and geology kits to warm coats and emergency food bags, and this City Council initiative reimburses teachers for $250 of those expenses. During this COVID-19 pandemic, this program continues to prove its value. When our classrooms closed abruptly many teachers left their school buildings without the supplies they needed to continue instruction, even in the form of remote learning.

We want to thank you once again for baselining this program last year, and urge you to maintain your strong advocacy for this program to ensure it is preserved at its $20 million level.

Focus on meeting the needs of public school students citywide: BRAVE mental health hotline & Dial-A-Teacher

Our BRAVE Mental Health Hotline and Dial-A-Teacher programs provide direct support to students in need across the entire City of New York. While the BRAVE mental health hotline provides mental health support and serves as our signature anti-bullying initiative in schools, our famous Dial-A-Teacher programs offers individualized academic support and tutoring. During these difficult times, these programs continue to prove to be coveted by students and their families for the service they provide.

BRAVE Mental Health Hotline

This initiative serves at-risk students using a free hotline and chat service that connects them with mental health professionals who can provide crisis intervention, supportive listening, suicide risk assessment and advice on crisis de-escalation. The BRAVE program is at the forefront of New York City’s battle against bullying in public schools, hosting anti-bullying conferences and workshops, and with information tables at educational events that have reached over 7,800 students and educators and over 5,000 family members and education activists across the boroughs during the 2019-20 school year.

During this pandemic, our BRAVE mental health program continues to operate its free hotline and online chatting services during the current novel coronavirus public health and economic crises, offering direct services to students and their families. We know many families are experiencing grief, stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, loss of income and other problems that are exacerbated or caused by the current crisis. Because of these new stresses, we reconfigured the program to provide students and families who contact BRAVE additional information on resources they can secure for assistance.

The UFT is asking for $326,400 this year to continue to combat bullying and to expand this vital program to provide students and families additional mental health support, which we anticipate, will be in high demand during the upcoming academic year due to COVID-19.


Active UFT in-service and retired members staff an after-school telephone hotline and online platform that provides homework help for the more than 60,000 calls and online requests, from students and parents that come in during the school year. For years, teachers have answered homework questions on all subjects, on all grade levels and in multiple languages, including Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Spanish and Tagalog. New York City Council support from the previous two years allowed the UFT to modernize our program’s telephone system and create an online platform to expand homework help for more students.

After a brief pause to account for adjusting to remote teaching and learning, Dial-A-Teacher resumed its services in April for students during the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily focusing on language arts and math home¬work assistance to students in grades K-5. Thanks to our new online platform, students can chat online with teachers to help them solve their homework questions. Students can, for example, take pictures of a question or draw out math problems they submit to a Dial-A-Teacher staffer via our program’s new online platform. We continue to work on ways to have Dial-A-Teacher return to offering all of its expansive services in multiple languages and in all subject areas.

The UFT is requesting $350,000 to further our online presence by enhancing the online app for students and procuring digital curriculum for multiple subject areas, in addition to updating our maintenance efforts. The current crisis has pushed us to expand remote learning for all students; our Dial-A-Teacher program must follow suit.

Closing thoughts

These are extraordinary times and it is during these times that we have to step up to the challenges we must confront. The public health and economic crises caused by the novel coronavirus has shaken our city to its core, but I know that we are resilient and we will overcome by working together. I want to end by saying that we pray for the 67 UFT in-service and 56 UFT retired members that have perished to date because of COVID-19 related complications. As a union and as a city, we want to let their family members know that our thoughts are with them and we will continue to do what we can to offer the support they need.