September/October 2019 Issue
August 25, 2019

In New Paltz, union and community unite to protect public education

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
new paltz
Caption: Educators and community members protest a decision by New Paltz administrators to target longtime teachers — and vocal unionists — for involuntary transfer. Photo courtesy of the New Paltz Times.

This is a story about the value of union membership — about solidarity, mobilization and the power of collective voice. And about what happens when a school community — educators working with parents — comes together to protect public education.

“There’s a sense of power and exhilaration knowing that when we stand up and show up, we can hold our administrators accountable and impact change during some truly challenging times,” said New Paltz United Teachers President Arielle Chiger.

At the end of last school year, New Paltz Central School administrators announced the involuntary transfer of 12 teachers. They also cut a third position without board of education approval — after voters approved a budget that included only two job cuts. Teachers were notified about the moves by a note in their mailboxes.

Not only were the transfers forced, they targeted union activists.

The reason, Chiger believes, had to do with retaliating against educators who had spoken up in the past about union, teacher and student rights.

“When pressed, the deputy superintendent and the superintendent of schools were unable to present any academically justifiable reason” for the transfers, Chiger said.

The moves also posed a threat to the education of New Paltz students, especially the district’s youngest ones.

Chiger said teachers who spent up to two decades in early childhood education were being sent to teach high school for the first time. Additionally, teaching partnerships that existed for years would have been torn apart.

“This contradicts all we know about best practices,” said Chiger. “Teachers who are involuntarily thrown into a co-teaching setting find themselves having to adapt to a new work partner, as well as a new grade level and setting. All of this takes a huge toll on the morale and emotional well-being of staff.”

With the involuntary transfers touching all four buildings in the district, the New Paltz UT sprang into action. Building reps worked with teachers in each school, enabling the union to gather information and coordinate. And, as teachers articulated the potential harm to students, parents and other community stakeholders joined in opposition to the plan.

When the school board met in June, educators and community members packed the room, with more than 30 people speaking during the public comment period.

Emotions ran high that evening; the passion was tangible.

Ultimately, the board offered a resolution to rescind the transfers. All but two have been reversed, and the third position cut has been restored.

Meanwhile, at the board’s request, the local and district have entered into mediation.

Chiger said she was proud of her members.

“The message sent (by administrators) — especially to newer teachers — was: ‘If you speak up, you will be punished.’ It’s already a challenge for educators to feel empowered and protected to do what they believe is best for their students and their colleagues without fear of being dislodged from the positions they love,” she said.

“The show of solidarity and its power to impact situations in real time has a very positive effect on member engagement and trust.”

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