Testimony of UFT President Michael Mulgrew before the New York City Council Committee on Education
My name is Michael Mulgrew and I serve as the president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the union’s more than 190,000 members, I would like to thank Chair Rita Joseph and all the members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Education for holding today’s oversight hearing on the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2023 and the preliminary capital commitment plan for fiscal years 2023-2026. I would also like to thank Speaker Adrienne Adams and Finance Committee Chair Justin Brannan for their leadership during this year’s budget process.
Reaction to FY23 preliminary education budget
I want to start by saying that I applaud the collective work we did as a city and state in 2020 and 2021. Because of our efforts, our school district was authorized to use $7.3 billion in federal stimulus funding to help us navigate the COVID-19 pandemic through September 2024, and our state government has maintained its commitment to fully funding foundation aid. With this funding in place, we have kept our school buildings safe, and our school doors open even through the most recent spread of the Omicron variant.
However, I fear that our city is squandering a generational opportunity to permanently strengthen our schools. With billions of federal funding on the table, the FY23 preliminary budget released last month focuses on teacher workforce reductions and cuts to school budgets. There is no mention of lowering class sizes; adding critical staff including social workers, counselors, and school psychologists; advancing an agenda for career and technical education or building on professional development for educators as we continue to face the challenges of remote instruction.
Our analysis of data released by the Independent Budget Office shows that the Department of Education (DOE) has not spent about $5 billion of the over-$7 billion in allocated federal stimulus money.
Our students are academically behind, and our school communities need mental-health support, including our educators. And rather than focus on meeting the need with federal stimulus funds and new state funding, we have been presented a budget that includes $557 million in cuts to our public schools. While we appreciate the reductions made at Tweed, this is not the time to enact freezes and workforce reductions in schools.
We are extremely disappointed to see that the charter school sector is one of only two areas — the other being student transportation — to receive a boost in city funding. In fact, while the administration proposes cuts to our public schools, the charter-school sector would see a $281 million increase in city funding.
Cap classroom capacity
Life-altering events like the COVID-19 pandemic should be seen as learning opportunities. During this public health emergency, we have learned that reducing class sizes not only offers an academic benefit to our students, but also provides a healthier and safer learning environment. We realized the benefits of social distancing and proper ventilation in our classrooms.
Just as when we last changed the city administrative code during a tuberculosis outbreak in the 1930s, we should make similar changes based on the health and safety lessons learned during this pandemic. In 2021, we worked with our partners at the City Council on Intro. 2374-2021 to cap classroom capacity by amending the health section of the administrative code.
While the bill did not pass before the end of the 2021 legislative calendar, the introduction had 40 co-sponsors. Our hope is that we can work with this new City Council to move the proposal forward this legislative year.
Fund UFT programs
We are proud to say that UFT programs are among the best vehicles city government can use to ensure that the funding allocated makes it straight to the classroom and has a direct impact on students and educators. This year we submitted discretionary-funding applications for six programs we ask the City Council to support.
- United Community Schools (UCS), Inc. – Our teacher-inspired nonprofit has developed a community-school model proven to transform public schools and the communities they serve. The model is anchored by a community school director placed in each school who is responsible for assessing the needs of students and families in the school community, then leveraging outside relationships to bring in the resources to meet the needs. We find that every $1 invested in a community school director yields $6 in resources for the school. During the 2020-2021 school year our 28 UCS schools in New York City collectively fed more than 6,000 families, coordinated over 10,500 health-clinic visits, and supported more than 20,000 students and families. This year we are requesting that the City Council provide UCS a $5-million grant so we can continue to intensify academic programming, make more tutors available, expand access to school-based health centers, connect more students to mental-health and behavioral-health resources, and provide more social-emotional learning and culturally responsive sustained education professional development for teachers.
- UFT Teacher Center – For more than 40 years, the UFT Teacher Center has been a guiding light for NYC educators, particularly during the pandemic. Whether it was professional development on remote instruction or providing technological support, UFT Teacher Center stepped up and filled in the gaps. During the 2021-2022 school year, we expanded our reach to include 118 sites across the five boroughs, and during the 2020-2021 school year, we supported 281,000 educators, principals, and parents over the course of 126,000 hours of professional development. This year we are asking for a $10-million grant from the Council to sustain current programming and expand. We want to add 10-15 new sites and develop new ways for teachers to help students catch up after the challenges of the pandemic. Those funds would also allow us to evolve our partnerships with Google and expand our work with Apple, support paraprofessionals in addressing the needs of our students with disabilities and English-language learners, and increase culturally responsive and sustaining-education course offerings.
- Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC) – Our PLC program is one of our most effective tools for bringing equity to NYC education and helping teachers, students, and parents cope with — and heal from — trauma. The UFT and DOE created the PLC program in 2012 to help educators improve school culture by moving away from punitive disciplinary systems that relied heavily on suspensions. Over the past decade, reliance on suspensions in 40 PLC schools declined by 46%, while staff and student surveys gauging a more-than 50-percent increase in a positive school climate. During the pandemic, PLC expanded its offerings for schools to create healing-centered classrooms. We need to bring its expert services to as many schools as possible. We are requesting that the Council provide PLC a $3-million grant to sustain our existing programming in schools.
- Dial-a-Teacher – Dial-A-Teacher began in January 1980 as a pilot program in 17 schools in eight districts. Over the years, our homework helpline has expanded to help students citywide from all grades, across various disciplines and in many languages. Dial-A-Teacher is now operating Monday through Thursday from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., in nine languages including Spanish, Mandarin and Bengali. Last year, the program received more than 40,000 calls. If Dial-A-Teacher’s operating technology were upgraded, it could help even more students in the virtual-education arena, where so many of our students are now learning. Dial-A-Teacher is respectfully requesting $265,000. The funds would be used to: 1) further develop an online presence by creating an electronic application that meets the technology students are using today; 2) procure digital curricula for multiple subject areas — curricula the DOE has identified as aligning with the new standards; 3) perform technology maintenance and upgrades for the program via a hybrid-remote/physical-presence model; and 4) promote the program in the communities we serve.
- BRAVE Hotline – The UFT entered into an agreement with the Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA), now known as VIBRANT, on October 3, 2011, to launch an anti-bullying campaign in New York City public schools. Since then, the UFT and MHA have been at the forefront of bringing awareness to the problem of bullying and creating resources that include a BRAVE (Building Respect, Acceptance and Voice through Education) hotline that students, their families, and educators can call, as well as ways to chat or text for help, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With your continued support, we can make a lasting impact on the lives and health of students across New York City. We respectfully ask you to support this program with $300,000 in this fiscal year, so we can continue to provide the services that are a lifeline for our students and a place our educators can turn to for resources.
- Member Assistance Program (MAP) – In 2009, the UFT started a Member Assistance Program (MAP) to fill a void for its members and their families. The UFT crafted and funded the program to address a full range of mental-health and well-being issues confronting its nearly 200,000 members and their families. When COVID-19 hit, members’ outreach to MAP increased many times over. We went from serving 4,500 members in 2018 to 32,000 members in 2021. The program, many of our members told us, enabled them to remain in the field of education by helping them cope with and adapt to the stresses caused by the pandemic. During this time, we provided services that allowed members to stay connected, express their grief and recognize their fears and stressors. It offered them healthier coping tools to navigate the COVID upheaval and recover. Until now, the UFT has fully funded its MAP program. With your support, we can make a lasting impact on the lives and health of educators and students throughout NYC. We are asking that the Council consider allocating MAP a $1,780,000 grant to support our program maintenance and expansion.
Support citywide programs
I would also like to take the time to advocate for two citywide programs that are vital for our students and educators. We need to baseline Teacher’s Choice, and I also ask the Council to support Broadway Bridges.
- Teacher’s Choice – The Teacher’s Choice program is crucial to our educators. It’s a key initiative to ensure our teachers are reimbursed for the school supplies and materials they purchase for their classrooms and for many of their students in need. After baselining the program for three years in the FY20 adopted budget, it was completely cut from the FY21 adopted budget, but then restored again in FY22 at $20M. We appreciate the administration included funding for Teacher’s Choice at $20M for FY23 and ask that you maintain it and once again baseline the program in the budget.
- Broadway Bridges – Broadway Bridges aims to ensure that every student in a New York City public high school can see a Broadway show before graduation. Through Broadway Bridges, The Broadway League subsidizes $20 tickets to weekday matinee and evening performances by paying half of the ticket price as well as the $3.00-$3.50 in fees associated with each ticket purchase. This enables The Broadway League to offer schools $10 tickets. The initiative improves the arts experience of students who have not had the opportunity to attend live theater, and it enhances the experiences of students who are already engaged with the performing arts through their schools. We ask that you support this important initiative in the FY23 Council budget.
Capital commitment plan FY23-26
As previously mentioned, it is important to take lessons from the pandemic and prioritize reducing class sizes, not just as an academic benefit to students but because it is a healthy and safe decision. We look forward to continuing our conversation with the Council on legislation to amend the city administrative code.
As members of the Carbon Free and Healthy School campaign, we believe it is time to invest in the infrastructure of our NYC schools. Most of our school buildings need basic repairs and upgrades – from antiquated heating and air-conditioning systems, to deteriorating rooftops, to outdated electrical grids.
By investing in school infrastructure, we can create tens of thousands of good union jobs while making schools healthier and safer, taking on climate change, and saving $250 million per year in energy costs. We want to prioritize historically under-resourced communities of color, where students face the most-acute educational and environmental challenges.
The idea is to create 60,000 union jobs to conduct deep retrofits and install solar power and battery storage to meet the energy needs of all NYC public schools. With energy-efficiency retrofits and renewable power, we can save more than 75,000 tons of carbon emissions every year--the equivalent of planting 400,000 trees or taking 161,000 cars off the road.
Our campaign analysis shows that the DOE spends approximately $275 million per year on energy. A 50-percent improvement in efficiency will save approximately $137 million annually. This is funding that can be reinvested in schools.
We are also members of the Lunch for Learning coalition, which successfully secured Universal Free School Lunch for NYC public school students in 2017. We support the coalition’s request that the DOE transform every high school and middle school by fully scaling the Office of Food and Nutrition Services’ student-friendly cafeteria redesign model (Cafeteria Enhancement Experience).
The welcoming environment and the food-court-style serving line provide more daily menu options and faster service, and the presentation dramatically increases the appeal of the food. High schools with redesigned cafeterias experienced a 35-percent increase in student participation in school meals.
This model is highly cost-effective and time efficient. Each cafeteria redesign costs only $500,000 and can be completed in one weekend. Approximately 80 of the 575 DOE middle and high school cafeterias either have the redesign model or currently have funds dedicated for the work. An investment of $250 million in capital funds over 5 years is needed to transform all middle and high-school cafeterias.
Closing Thoughts We have a real opportunity to bring transformational change to our school district. With access to federal stimulus funding and new state funding, we can permanently deepen our academic support for students and address the mental-health needs of all school communities. We can also accelerate progress to make our schools carbon-free and healthy. Our members are always ready to be of service and provide the best they can to all students.
I want to thank you again for today’s hearing. We look forward to our continued engagement throughout this budget process.