New Haven teachers union attempts school turnaround

    One of Connecticut’s teachers unions recently found a new way to flex its political muscles: running a school.

    The New Haven Federation of Teachers runs the city’s High School in the Community, the sixth in a series of schools designated as needing a “turnaround” and the first turned over to union control.

    Gov. Dannel Malloy recently announced Sharon Palmer, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, the statewide parent organization of the NHFT, would serve as his next labor commissioner.

    New Haven has designated poorly performing schools as “turnarounds,” meaning the schools will be rebuilt from scratch, with new teachers, leaders and nontraditional work rules.

    Such schools are expected to be “free from many board regulations and policies,” according to the union contract.

    Following the announcement, all school staff had to reapply for their jobs. A committee of school leaders, union officials and parents made hiring decisions.

    “As part of the school turnaround, the student experience at High School in the Community will become more personalized and meaningful, aligned to the most significant trend in education around the country,” said New Haven Mayor John DeStefano in a June 26 statement.

    While most will agree that a more individualized education is in the best interest of children everywhere, the fact that the NHFT will have so much discretion in this education is a topic of contention. In fact, in many other union-led turnarounds the projects seem to be failing.

    Similar initiatives have been undertaken in Los Angeles, Boston, Denver and New York City.

    A particular instance in a New York City union school highlights the difficulties and conflicts of interest which can arise when school administration answers not to the taxpayers who fund them but independent, politically motivated union heads.

    Drew Goodman, principal of the United Federation of Teachers Secondary Charter School in Brooklyn, was forced to step down after struggling to navigate the clouded and tenuous role of teacher/administrator. According to Goodman and others at the school, the principal was often caught between the teachers and the union leaders who run the school.

    In a similar situation at UFT Elementary Charter School in East New York, top administrator Rita Davis is leaving amid complaints that she showed “negligence, irresponsibility, untrustworthy accountability, and bias” in her handling of a teacher who raised complaints about the school structure. One teacher,

    when asked about the incident, attributed the trouble to the fact that the school is run like a “dictatorship” rather than a democracy, with the principal answering to people who represent simultaneously the school, children, and teacher’s union.

    Rather than improving school efficiency, increased union involvement has made it more difficult to run these schools effectively. Is it too late to turn this decision around in New Haven?

    Zack Albert was a summer intern at the Yankee Institute. He is a junior studying political science and economics at Fairfield University. He lives in Southington.