Blamed. Scared. Set up for failure.
That's how many educators in the state's neediest schools said they feel in year one of the state's new receivership law.
"You can't turn around a school in one year," Syracuse Teachers Association President Kevin Ahern told lawmakers at an Assembly Education Committee hearing in the fall. "The law is more about demonizing teachers and destabilizing school districts than improving outcomes for kids living in poverty."
After years of underfunding, the state's new law is making the teaching and learning environment even more challenging, essentially telling educators: "Succeed or you're fired," said Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Pat Puleo.
Aside from the unreasonable timelines, union leaders said the receivership law's threatening nature is already leading to a dangerous level of staff turnover.
Schenectady Federation of Teachers President Juliet Benaquisto said half the staff at one elementary school identified for receivership has left, leaving the school with many new educators with little to no experience — and a one-year deadline to improve.
"Teachers are living under an atmosphere of fear," she said.
NYSUT strongly opposed the receivership law that was rushed into place as part of the state budget, saying it unfairly scapegoats educators who teach in these high-needs schools and overrides local control and collective bargaining. Calling for more time and resources, the union is now urging lawmakers to revisit the onerous law and replace the punitive provisions with support.
Under the law, struggling schools have a one- or two-year turnaround period or risk takeover from a state-approved outside receiver.
The State Education Department in July identified 144 struggling schools in 17 districts. Of those 144, 20 were deemed "persistently struggling" and must show demonstrable improvement within one year. Beginning this school year, superintendents in districts with struggling schools became internal "school receivers" with considerable autonomy.
"We strongly opposed this law and we will keep challenging it — in the courts, at the legislative level and with the State Education Department," said NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. She said NYSUT has worked hard to mitigate some of the damaging provisions in the law by pressing SED and the Regents for more sensible regulatory language, but much more needs to be done.
Immediately after the law was enacted, Fortino brought together local union leaders from the high-needs districts to form a network for sharing common concerns and best practices. In addition, NYSUT has held a series of regional meetings to explain what's required under the new law and to let members know the union's legal team will challenge violations of job rights.
"You are not alone," Fortino told educators at a Hudson Valley regional meeting.
She assured members the union will fight fiercely to uphold collective bargaining rights and noted Buffalo's dispute with its superintendent and the commissioner will be a strong legal test case.
As school teams at regional sessions relayed what was happening in their individual schools and districts, educators voiced concerns about a lack of community and local union involvement, as required under the law. A number of local unions reported they had not been able to see their district's plan. School board members in one district have refused to hire new staff, instead leaving substitutes in place. There was also a great deal of misinformation about what "demonstrable improvement" targets would be.
Local union leaders voiced concern that their schools — and their students — are being set up for failure. Special education students are not receiving required services; classes are severely overcrowded and scheduling problems are prevalent. At one high school, students are not getting the necessary physical education and health classes to graduate. At another, 4,500 students are crammed into just three lunch periods, posing serious safety concerns. Local leaders are concerned unionists will be targeted for termination.
A lack of funding remains a huge obstacle. Due to years of inadequate funding, the receivership schools have had to make difficult financial decisions regarding staffing, programs and services that have clearly hurt the school's academic performance.
Poughkeepsie, for example, has eliminated 155 staff positions in the last three years and has reduced its kindergarten program from full day to half day due to a lack of funding.
The state allocated $75 million for the "persistently struggling" schools, but as of December that money had not yet been released. The Regents Board has called for at least another $75 million for struggling schools, plus $65 million to support English language learners and $50 million for family and community engagement.
Hempstead teacher Nicole Brown questioned whether the receivership law's punitive nature and the fact it disproportionately affects black and brown students could be a civil rights issue.
"They're not attacking the systemic problems ... poverty, lack of resources, 100-year-old buildings, misuse of funds and crazy board members," she said.
Fortino said she would follow up on many of the issues raised at the regional meetings with the state education commissioner. "We need to keep the lines of communication open and keep pointing out specific situations where the law is having harmful consequences," Fortino said. "We will support you and keep fighting to change this bad law."