Teachers are masters at getting to the truth, a skill that they develop out of necessity and years of practice. I admire a teacher who can face a room full of 13 year olds and deflect a volley of half-truths intended to throw off his/her teaching (and other students’ learning). “I know I’m ten minutes late, but Mr. Smith said I didn’t need a pass.” Anyone who has spent one day in front of middle school students or has supervised a study hall knows exactly what I mean.
Teaching elementary kids can be even harder than working with teenagers. I’ve spent quite a few years working with primary school children. Kindergarten is the best, there’s an energy in the classroom that is hard to describe. But when things go awry, it takes a lot of patience to get to the truth. Five year olds aren’t purposeful in their deception, in fact most of the time they don’t even know what part of their story is true. They often operate on pure stimulus and response, firing accusations at their classmates without taking the time to find out what actually happened. ‘He punched me’ often originates from an innocent brush heading to the line. Kindergarteners, like a lot of adults, shoot first and ask questions later. I make a point to tell my students’ parents, “Please only believe 1/3 of what your child tells you about what happens in school, and I’ll only believe a 1/3 of what they tell me about what happens at home.”
And so, when a story exploded on NY’s education blogosphere this week, I took the time to do a little digging and find the truth that lies behind the accusations that NYSUT’s officers were in cahoots with politicians to “pass [a] law giving them leaves of absences at full pay, all of it pensionable, and get Cuomo to sign it at the speed of light.” (Of course, “exploded” is a relative term here. The story hasn’t received any ink yet and very few local union leaders know anything about it). The accusations stem from a blog post by retired NYC teacher Norm Scott (Ed Notes Online). Two other bloggers piled on Scott’s narrative: Arthur Goldstein’s NYC Educator, and the blog of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers’ Assoc. (Note: both Goldstein and the president of the PJSTA lost their bid for NYSUT leadership positions in April).
New York Assembly Bill 10019 passed earlier this year and was signed into law on July 22. The bill relates to leaves of absence for state employees and was an amendment of a previous law already on the books from 1984. The law allows an employer to grant a leave of absence to a member of the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) with full salary for the purpose of serving as an elective officer of their local organization (local union) or statewide affiliate (ie. NYSUT).
Three major changes were made to the 1984 law in this amendment:
- A limit of four employees per organization was was omitted.
- The phrase “statewide affiliate” was added to the law. Previously, this law applied only to elective officers from local organizations.
- Gender specific references to the employee (namely “he”) were omitted and replaced with the phrase”the employee.”
In short, elected officers of the union may request a leave of absence from their current position. The union reimburses the local school district or BOCES for their salary and related costs including pension contributions and payroll taxes. In the case of NYSUT, those contributions are deducted from the officer’s salary. TRS members remain in the system, essentially buying years of service in the system, not unlike buying back years for military or prior public employee service.
The full text of the bill is available at: http://legiscan.com/NY/text/A10019/2013
In his blog, Norm Scott asserts that this was some sort of backroom deal struck by the new leaders at NYSUT in exchange for political endorsements (or neutrality in the case of Cuomo) and that they are engaged in a full blown coverup. Arthur Goldstein calls the legislation surreptitious and the NYSUT officers hypocritical for not refusing the benefit. (Note: as a chapter leader in the UFT, part of Goldstein’s salary is reimbursed by the UFT under an almost identical provision). The PJSTA calls the legislation a “scandal” and says, “This would further allow the officers to collect not only their NYSUT pension when they retire, but also a much more lucrative pension from the State than they should actually be entitled to.” Officers would be “ensured double pensions.” The “deal” is even linked to alleged support by NYSUT of the IDC, the Common Core, and it’s decision to not endorse a candidate in the governor’s race (none of which is supported by any evidence).
Q: Did NYSUT trade passage of this bill for political favors or endorsements?
A: No. There is no evidence that NYSUT traded endorsements (or neutrality in the Gov’s race) for the passage of this bill. This bill has been on the books since 1984. The amendments were a minor change to correct discrepancies in the legislation (including the statewide affiliates). In fact, the sponsor of the bill in the Senate was Sen. Flanagan who did not receive an endorsement from NYSUT. This amendment passed the Senate with 59 Yeas/2 Abs. It passed the Assembly 128 Yea/6 Abs.
Q: Who pays the salary, pension contributions, and related costs for the officers? Does this cost NYSUT or the local school districts more money?
A: No. All costs associated with leave of absences, including pension contributions, are payed out of the officer’s current NYSUT salary. The local school district and NYSUT do not incur any additional costs due to the change in this law.
Q: Does this allow for pension “double dipping?”
A: No. Any contributions that the officers make to the TRS reduce their NYSUT salary dollar for dollar, so their NYSUT pension contributions are reduced as well. Most of the NYSUT officers won’t even be vested in the NYSUT pension system by the time the next election rolls around in 2017. If they did become vested in the NYSUT pension, they would carry two retirement accounts, but there would be no overlap in either contributions or benefits upon retirement. Here’s the thing, in Central New York, John DeFrancisco is our State Senator. As chair of the State Finance Committee and a longtime leader of the Republicans, DeFrancisco is known as the “bulldog,” (and he’s not a big fan of NYSUT). He voted for the amendment and he didn’t receive an endorsement from NYSUT. I find it incredibly hard to believe that he’d vote yes on a bill that had any potential to allow pension double-dipping to occur. It just doesn’t make sense.
Q: Why the change?
A: The previous version of the law did not include statewide affiliates (ie. NYSUT). Elected officers of other unions (CSEA, PEF, UFT) are afforded this option under similar provisions. These rules actually encourage rank and file members to take the enormous risk of running for statewide office with an uncertain future. If this leave of absence provision didn’t exist, statewide leaderships could continue to be dominated by non-active members, retirees, or those without field experience. This change was good for public employee unions in New York, it was good for NYSUT, and it’s good for any rank and file member who wants to seek office in the future.
Point of View
The allegations lobbed at NYSUT by Norm Scott and his allies are baseless, bordering more on self-promotion than investigative journalism. There’s no evidence of a cover up, NYSUT didn’t trade endorsements or favors for passage of the amendment, and no pension double dipping is taking place. This amendment does no more for NYSUT officers than was already afforded to elected officials in local unions and other public employee organizations in New York. In fact, many local union presidents receive release time from teaching duties in their districts. Some of their unions reimburse the district for salary costs, but few require the employee to reimburse the district for pension and payroll related expenses.
Unfortunately there is very little accountability to facts in the blogosphere. A good teacher knows the difference between the truth and tantrums. It would benefit us all to step back and take another look at the evidence in this case.