Her nickname is “Donna McGrievance.”
It’s an apt moniker for Brentwood’s Donna McStay, whose many actions to protect the health and safety of her peers have earned her NYSUT’s “Unsung Hero” award.
McStay, a sixth-grade English and science teacher at South Middle School, is executive vice president of the Brentwood Teachers Association, where she chairs the Grievance Committee. Earlier this month, she was honored at NYSUT’s biennial Health and Safety Conference, at which she told her colleagues from throughout the state: “We are a team!”
In Brentwood, union building delegates follow channels to get problems resolved, and if they are not, then “McGrievance” steps in with the paperwork.
“It is a means to protect our members’ rights and ensure that our buildings are safe and healthful places to teach and learn. This proactive approach has served us all very well,” she said.
McStay is the “Columbo” of her district, doggedly pursuing answers to problems faced by teachers in the workplace, ranging from poor indoor air quality to mold to overheated classrooms. She also headed the effort to ensure the district had building swipe readers and identification cards, and that security cameras were repaired or replaced. She even spent six years working to resolve a mold and mildew problem in a high school media room.
“It took a while to diagnose the issues,” McStay said. “The district agreed to some major cleaning efforts and addressed the mold/air quality issues by renovating the air intake and blower system.” Then, they removed foam padding and painting.
In a district with 19,000 students and 18 buildings, problems can arise around any corner.
“Our buildings are very old, so excessive heat in classrooms has been an ongoing issue for years,” she said. “We joined in NYSUT’s efforts… and asked teachers to record excessive temperatures in classrooms over a two-week period.” Data was then sent to NYSUT and to the district, and now there has been a “much quicker response” to both heating issues and the installation of medically necessary air conditioners, McStay said.
“Establishing an upper-temperature limit in classrooms needs to become law/regulation,” she said.
“Many rooms have gotten new heating units and blowers that circulate/replace air in rooms throughout the day. We are now also able to ensure our members that air conditioners and heating units have the filters cleaned, or replaced, on a regular basis.”
McStay credits the BTA’s chain-of-command with helping to stay on top of health and safety issues. Educators in the 1,400-member local union report issues to delegates in each building in the district.
“Many of our chief delegates and delegates have received union training, so it is not uncommon for them to be able to address various concerns in their own buildings with their administrators,” she said. Being able to attend the professional development conference offered by NYSUT “makes us stronger, more informed, and a little more powerful,” she said.
When an issue cannot be resolved, she said the delegate contacts a vice president, who then tries to take care of the grievance informally. They have regularly scheduled meetings with administration. If there is no progress, then a grievance is filed.
One of her best tools in her work as grievance chair is documentation.
“When there is an unresolved issue, members are often asked to document,” she said. “This may include room repair request forms, photos, logs, etcetera.”
McStay also reported that health and safety measures included removing rugs in numerous rooms and installing tiles. Asbestos abatement was completed on various classrooms and offices in the district and floors replaced. Many windows that were malfunctioning throughout the district have been fixed or replaced. The union was also able to get part-time custodial “floaters” hired to help with the overall daily maintenance of buildings when custodians are absent.
“I have always felt that if you help one member, you are helping all members,” McStay said.
At the new member orientation for the BTA led by Kevin Coyne, new members are provided a lot of choices for getting involved. That way, said McStay, when there is a problem or an idea, “they feel we are very approachable.”
The BTA also works with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, which McStay considers a “valuable resource.” And, she said, more attention is now being paid to the mental and emotional health of not just students, but members and their families.
At its next union meeting, the BTA will host a counseling center director to come in and talk to its 140 delegates about this important benefit provided in their contract.
“I’d like to see more training and education on this issue,” McStay said.
A good amount of her own emotional health comes from her work in the classroom.
“I love all aspects of teaching, but the best part by far is connecting with students,” McStay said, calling the Brentwood students “eager, compassionate and full of life.”
As she heads toward the wind-down of her teaching career, she said the relationships she has built with students and their families are “what I treasure most.”