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School Contracts: Do They Serve The Students?

by Jessica Wolff, Dec 10, 2003
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Last month, the education committee of the New York City Council held a controversial series of hearings examining school system labor agreements, the contracts whose little-known details, or "work rules," govern much of the day-to-day workings of the city's public schools. The hearings aimed to inform the public about the city's contracts with the major unions that represent school custodians, teachers, and administrators and to explore whether some aspects of these contracts created barriers to improving instruction.

All three union contracts for school employees have expired and must be renegotiated.

Education committee chair Eva Moskowitz, the council member who spearheaded the unprecedented hearings, told reporters that union officials and others had pressured her to cancel them. She persisted because she believed that was her duty to turn attention to what she called the "elephant in the room," contract rules that serve the adults in the schools rather than the children.

Testimony from the Department of Education and school personnel claimed that good schools flourished in spite of the contracts, not because of them. Witnesses, some of whom testified on tape rather than in person, with voices disguised, said that a number of aspects of the contracts were problematic.

The custodians' contract contains a number of seemingly arbitrary divisions of responsibilities that create inefficiencies and long waits for maintenance and repairs. For example, custodians are only permitted to paint school walls to a height of ten feet. Above ten feet is someone else's responsibility. Custodians are responsible for changing light bulbs, but ordering new bulbs is someone else's responsibility. The hearings also revealed provisions in the custodians' contract that offer possible financials incentives for doing less improvement work, as well as provisions that limit accountability of custodians to their school's principal.

The teachers' contract makes it hard to remove poorly performing teachers. Though the last contract agreement streamlined the official dismissal process, principals and others testified that amassing the evidence necessary to initiate that process takes years. The teacher salary structure set up by the contract makes it impossible for the school system to offer higher pay to attract teachers in shortage areas, such as math and science. The contract also allows teachers with seniority to transfer to fill vacancies in schools anywhere in the city without screening or approval from the school. Furthermore, the receiving principal may not even see the teacher's file from the old school. This has two consequences: experienced teachers gravitate toward higher performing schools, and poorly performing teachers can be pressured to move on rather than risk an unsatisfactory rating. In addition, the contract agreement known as Circular 6 prohibits teachers from conducting homerooms and from monitoring halls or lunchrooms.

The contract that governs supervisors and administrators has similarly troublesome transfer policies. Dan Weisberg, the executive director of labor policy for the Department of Education, testified that the administrators' contract made it nearly impossible to fire incompetent principals and assistant principals. He also said that seniority rules made it difficult for the city to manage administrators effectively.

Labor officials criticized the new policies of Chancellor Klein's Children First initiative, as well as chaos and confusion surrounding its implementation this fall. They complained that the new policies micromanaged schools and classrooms, tying teachers' and principals' hands. United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said that new classroom rules were forcing teachers to become "robots." Council of Supervisors and Administrators president Jill Levy called Children First a "reign of terror."

Weingarten and Levy also criticized the mayor and the chancellor for attacking contract provisions but refusing to come to the bargaining table to negotiate a new contract. The UFT has specifically accused the Department of Education and its chancellor of "poisoning the atmosphere for good-faith bargaining in an attempt to divert attention from their failure to implement their new educational policies and blame the union and the contract for those failures."

Both union heads accused the council hearings of maligning committed, hardworking school personnel.

Throughout the hearings, city council members repeatedly reminded education officials that the city had agreed to each provision it was now complaining about. They urged school officials to act quickly to remedy the problems they saw.

Following the hearings, a number of city politicians, including City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, called on Mayor Bloomberg to renew efforts to negotiate new contracts with the unions. The teachers union has filed a formal complaint against the Department of Education for refusing to negotiate.

Study Quantifies Impact of Teacher Transfer Policy

A new analysis of the allocation of teachers in the city schools shows once more that schools with the neediest students are routinely staffed with the most inexperienced teachers. The report, issued by the Industrial Areas Foundation, Metro New York, demonstrates that this practice amounts to a significant resource disparity between poor and middle-to-upper-class schools within the city. It holds both the teachers' contract and school system budgeting policies to blame.

Under the terms of the teachers' contract, the most senior teacher who applies to fill a position must be hired. Over time, senior teachers gravitate toward the wealthier, higher-achieving districts. The school system reinforces this trend with its formula for allocating money to districts. Instead of allocating districts a certain amount to pay for teachers, it allocates teacher positions, "holding the districts harmless for differences in teacher salaries."

One possible solution, according to the report, would be to allocate to districts the average teacher salary for each teacher. This would give high-performing districts a financial incentive to hire a mix of experienced and new teachers. Plus, poorer districts that could not attract enough experienced teachers would have the option of hiring more teachers and reducing the teacher-pupil ratio.

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

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