On a rain-soaked morning in Long Island's Freeport School District, Navy Junior ROTC cadets snapped to attention for muster, bilingual students sang the alphabet in Spanish and a high school class told AFT President Randi Weingarten and NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi that if they could ask President Obama for anything, it would be to make college more affordable.
Two days into a new school year, the dreams and aspirations of students in Freeport and Hempstead – two high-achieving Nassau County school districts with large concentrations of poor, minority students – are already running head-long into a painful reality: Budget cuts and the looming tax cap threaten to dismantle all that teachers and school leaders have built over the last decade. It's a point that became crystal clear when Weingarten and Iannuzzi met with local union leaders on a back-to-school tour highlighting what's working in public education, and what's at risk.
While students dream of college and can take advantage of a wealth of opportunity – more than 70 student clubs in Freeport alone – three consecutive years of deep budget cuts and a draconian property tax cap are stretching school district resources to the limit. Only through thoughtful collaboration between local unions and the superintendent, administrators and school board members, have both Freeport and Hempstead managed to stave off disastrous cuts to staff and essential programs. But, they ask, for how long?
"These are examples of districts where collaboration and partnership are part of the fabric of what happens in a school that makes that school great," Iannuzzi said. "We need to maintain it. The question is, How are we going to maintain these great programs and services for children in the face of budget cuts and a tax cap?"
Weingarten noted that true collaboration works in the best interests of students and programs.
"When we work together, we can use money more efficiently to help students," she said, adding, "I find the whole conversation stunning. It feels so oxymoronic that people want their schools to be good. They support their schools. Yet they also support budget cuts and a tax cap that threaten great schools like those here," Weingarten said during the tour of Freeport, where local union president Stuart Napear and Superintendent Kishore Kuncham work closely together to the benefit of students, staff and the entire community.
"We believe we can be the model for many communities," Napear said. "It's the key issue: collaboration between labor and management, and between school communities and the general public."
Weingarten and Iannuzzi also highlighted the many success stories in Hempstead, where union president Dawn Sherwood is leading a team of teachers and key administrators – under the auspices of an AFT Innovation Fund grant -- in developing a comprehensive, fair and objective teacher evaluation system.
Superintendent Patricia Garcia noted that, initially, teachers weren't the only ones skeptical of how districts would develop stronger and fairer evaluations during times of dwindling resources and intense budget pressure. She said Hempstead administrators also had to take a leap of faith and trust that collaboration and partnership with the union would work out in the best interests of the entire school district. "Sometimes we disagree." Garcia said. "But we listen and we talk and we keep talking. We make it about the issues, not the personalities."
Sherwood agreed, and noted the collaborative Annual Professional Performance Review process taught her that "the work of the union has moved from contractual issues to professional issues."
"Clearly, union work has expanded beyond just getting a good contract," Sherwood said. "It's about being professionals. It's about doing what's necessary to grow the profession so we can feel good about being teachers."
Iannuzzi noted that, "Hempstead is a really great example of going down that road of collaboration. Even when you don't agree, you still go down the road. You stay focused on that goal and figure out how to do it."