Back (Pay) Talk

News of unusual back pay proposal draws mixed reactions

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew

A potential back pay compromise that has emerged in new contract talks between the city and teachers union sparked mixed reactions Friday.

On the one hand, some said, the proposal to spread more than $3 billion in retroactive raises over a nine-year contract offers the city an affordable payment option, while creating some budget stability. But on the other hand, critics said, the deal could set a damaging pattern for other unions while still requiring serious givebacks from the teachers.

Meanwhile, the mayor declined to confirm the negotiation details, which were revealed in a New York Times report, while union officials noted that more options were on the table than just those leaked to the press.

“There’s just a whole lot of potential ways to settle this,” said Doug Turetsky, chief of staff for the Independent Budget Office, who noted that both the city and union say they have viable proposals. “Sometimes realism is in the eye of the beholder.”

The Times report, which offered the first glimpse into intense, ongoing city-union negotiations, said the long contract would include $3.4 billion in retroactive raises to match ones that other unions received several years ago. The deal could also include raises for more recent years. It would extend from 2009, when the teachers’ last contract expired, until 2018, after Mayor Bill de Blasio faces re-election.

Such a deal could make the sizable back pay affordable to the city, which says it does not have anywhere near that amount available in its current budget, said Charles Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed watchdog group.

If the deal gives teachers the 4 percent raises that they missed in earlier bargaining rounds, they may be more willing to accept smaller raises for the latest rounds — setting a precedent for “reasonable settlements” with the other municipal unions, Brecher added.

“I think if you’re getting an amount of cash like that it makes it easier to be content with a more modest package going forward,” he said.

But that very possibility might make the union wary: The other 151 municipal unions that lack contracts would not be pleased if the United Federation of Teachers set a pattern of modest pay increases.

“We should not undercut other unions by getting our retroactive money and then skimping everyone else for the subsequent years,” said Peter Lamphere, a high school teacher and member of the UFT’s MORE caucus, which has called for a more inclusive and transparent bargaining process.

What’s more, even if the raises were spread out over several years, the union would still likely have to stomach serious cost-savings, most likely relating to health insurance, but also possibly in other areas, such as its pool of paid teachers without full-time jobs.

De Blasio said as much in brief comments to reporters Friday.

“We can’t get where we need to go without cost savings,” he said. “And I think folks in the labor community understand that.”

That is not necessarily the case. Some in the union have suggested that the city has hidden funds in its budget that could be used for worker raises.

“I definitely do not agree with the position that [the raises] will require concessions from the union,” Lamphere said. “I think the money is there.”

The UFT, like de Blasio, declined to comment on the details of the news report Friday.

But one union official noted that such a lengthy contract would be highly unusual, and risky, if economic conditions worsened or problems arose with other provisions of the deal during the long life of the contract. The official added that UFT President Michael Mulgrew has “talked about a whole variety of lengths of contracts” with city negotiators.

Of course, while back pay is a major issue in city-teacher negotiations, it is hardly the only one. Changes to the new teacher-evaluation system will almost certainly be up for discussion, as well as the various non-instructional tasks now required of teachers.

MORE has called for smaller class sizes, additional in-school supports for students, and teacher evaluations that do not incorporate standardized-test scores, among other demands. It says the union should do more to rally its members around those causes while bargaining is still underway.

“There’s a window right now where there are a lot of things in play,” Lamphere said. “And the more pressure we bring to bear on the city the better.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.