October 15, 2015

NYSUT: Struggling schools need time, money to improve - not receivership

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source:  NYSUT Communications
receivership hearing
Caption: Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Pat Puleo (left) urged lawmakers to "take a deep breath, step back from the law and let's see what has succeeded. We cannot do this timeline when you put a knife to people's throats." Testifying at Wednesday's hearing, left to right: Puleo; Troy Teachers Association President Seth Cohen; Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto; Janella Hinds, a vice president with the United Federation of Teachers; and Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Calling for more time and money for the New York's struggling schools, NYSUT and numerous other advocates strongly urged lawmakers to revisit the state's receivership law and replace the punitive provisions with support.

"NYSUT strongly opposes the enacted receivership law; it scapegoats educators who teach in these schools and overrides local control and collective bargaining," said NYSUT Legislative Director Steve Allinger. "It's not sound education policy."

Testifying before a state Assembly Education Committee hearing in Albany, Allinger said true turnaround efforts are not some "instant Cream of Wheat" where you can quickly transform a school that is serving the state's most vulnerable population.

"It takes time — and will require additional resources," Allinger said.

He noted the state has failed to provide adequate funding: School districts facing receivership are owed more than $2.6 billion in foundation aid and $94 million in Gap Elimination Adjustment — more than a combined $2.7 billion.

Due to years of inadequate funding, school districts with struggling schools have had to make difficult financial decisions regarding staffing, programs and services that have clearly hurt the school's academic performance.

As an example, he cited the Utica City School District, which has been forced to cut more than 350 positions, including 192 teachers, 41 teaching assistants, 46 support staff, 52 clerical workers and 10 custodial staff. Poughkeepsie, which has eliminated 115 staff positions in the last three years, has reduced its kindergarten program from full day to half day due to lack of funding.

While the state Legislature allocated $75 million to the state's 20 persistently struggling schools, that money has yet to be released even though it's already several weeks into the school year and those schools could be placed under an independent receiver if they fail to demonstrate notable improvement by the end of this school year.

NYSUT is extremely concerned the State Education Department has indicated this grant money will likely be spread out over two years and that it will be holding back $7 million of the funds to potentially pay for an external receiver. Allinger urged lawmakers to provide at least the same level of targeted funding for the state's next tier of schools facing possible sanctions: 124 struggling schools that face receivership unless they demonstrate improvement in two years.

Allinger also called for more community school funding; providing incentives to attract and retain promising teacher candidates and career educators; restoring local control and collective bargaining rights; providing adequate time to build collaborative models, including parents and community partners; providing funding for professional support and embedded standards-based professional development; and using multiple measures of school improvement — beyond test scores — including attendance, improved school climate and increased parental engagement.

Allinger was joined at the table by teacher union leaders from around the state. Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern called the new law's timelines "completely unrealistic."

"I don't believe you can turn around a school in a year," Ahern said. When the state imposes such deadlines, "it becomes an exercise more in compliance than improvement."

Schenectady TA President Juliet Benaquisto agreed: "We don't need more unreasonable timeframes. We need reasonable measures to demonstrate growth and we need resources."

Benaquisto urged lawmakers to provide adequate funding so districts can invest in proven turnaround measures: decreasing class size, offering small group instruction and providing intervention staff.

"We aren't schools that are struggling," Benaquisto said. "We're working with families that are struggling. They're struggling with life."

Both Benaquisto and Troy TA President Seth Cohen warned lawmakers the receivership law's threatening nature is leading to a dangerous level of staff turnover.

Benaquisto said half the staff at one Schenectady elementary school facing receivership has left, leaving the school with many brand new educators with zero-to-one year of experience and a one-year deadline to improve. "Teachers are living under fear," she said.

"This labeling is very detrimental," Cohen said. He said one Troy school has had four principals in four years and lost 25 percent to 40 percent of staff per year. "That's not good," he said. "Consistency is key."

"Blaming teachers — rather than supporting them — and nullifying collective bargaining agreements will impede recruitment and retention at struggling schools," said Janella Hinds, a vice president with the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. "Receivership is an end-run around local control and a taxpayer-funded step toward privatizing public education. Parachuting in outsiders with heavy-handed scorched-earth policies is not the answer. What our schools need to make them better is the investment of proper resources — not receivers."

Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Pat Puleo told lawmakers the state has set these schools up for failure and is now saying, "Succeed or you're fired."

She urged lawmakers to "take a deep breath, step back from the law and let's see what has succeeded. We cannot do this timeline when you put a knife to people's throats."

NYSUT has been working closely with local unions in receivership districts, providing technical information and support. NYSUT's legal department team is researching the receivership provisions and stands ready to defend any tenure or seniority violations that arise under the new law.

After the 6-hour hearing, Assembly Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, D-Queens, told reporters changes to the legislation could follow.

"Look, we want to move forward, but sometimes in New York we build the airplane in the air and … that's not the best way to go about it. We get that we want to push people, we want to get better results, but when you hear six hours of testimony where people say we have to have an adequate amount of time, we have to have adequate resources, obviously we have to respond to that."