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Running for UFT High School VP – how I got started

April 8, 2022 am30 12:22 am

I am running for United Federation of Teachers High School Vice President, with the United for Change coalition.

Who am I?

Jonathan Halabi. I teach mathematics at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College. I am a twenty-five year high school mathematics teacher. I am a twenty-year UFT chapter leader. I’ll tell more, but let me start by going back.

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When I was a kid my mother was part of an organizing drive at the hospital where she worked. Actually, that drive wasn’t easy to get started. The hospital workers union did not want to get involved unless there was a real chance to win. So, when I was a kid, my mother hosted meetings in our living room, with workers from different departments, figuring out how to get more people interested. And they did. It took a couple of years. But 1199 came in, and ran a drive. There was a real organizing headquarters in a storefront around the corner. But our kitchen got busy too. And then there was the vote, and the workers lost 45 – 55, and the administration retaliated against my mom. She won a victory against them for harassment at the NLRB, only to lose on appeal. In any case, she ended up working at Yale, and was part of the historic clerical and technical organizing drive there. And when she moved north, and got a job as an administrative assistant at Harvard, the newly formed union there made good use of her experience, and had her explain what it was like to gain their first contract at Yale. In any case, I wasn’t around for that campaign – having left for college. But the hospital drive, and the campaign at Yale, I remember those clearly. And it’s how I think of my mom back then – out for hikes, and over dinner, and organizing.

From my mom’s first strike

So I came to New York, eventually got a City job (Department of Transportation), quit that, finished the college degree I’d never finished, and didn’t really have any prospects. My uncle, who’d just retired from a long (maybe 35+ years) teaching career, including the last two decades at Murrow, said “teach.” “I don’t want to teach.” “Do you have any other prospects?” I didn’t have an answer. So February 1997 I started subbing, and pretty soon one school, Christopher Columbus High School, started calling me every morning, and then told me to come in whether they called me or not. I got hired for September, teaching three sections of MP1 for freshmen, one section of MQ1 for freshmen, and one section of MP1 for repeaters…

I signed a union card right away, volunteered to sign up for COPE, and thought that would be the extent of my commitment. I knew how consuming union work can be, and this teaching was HARD. I would be a good, quiet UFT member. But after a couple years the chapter leader approached me. In short order I got pulled onto the consultation committee, and elected Delegate. At Delegate Assemblies, at Fashion Industries, I always sat with my District Rep, David Shulman, in the raised seats, back right.

One Election Day PD (back then, all the high school math teachers in the Bronx would go to one school, and run PD for each other. It was some of the best PD I’ve ever had) – but one election day PD the Bronx Superintendent ranted at us and insulted us and declared we did not know how to teach, but that he was going to fix that by bringing in a new math program, Math Connections. We were not delighted, although I think I was the only one in the CCHS breakout room who gave the sentiment clear voice. (Very clear voice. I can’t write it here, but ask me, if you like, and I’ll tell you). A few months later I got dragged to a meet the president event (Randi Weingarten) and the old-timers in my department told me to go talk to some other people, and by the end of the event I was part of a borough-wide committee. Article 24. Professional Conciliation. We won. (and some of the friendships formed then endure today…)

The Bronx high schools were having a hard time of it in the late 1990s. New York State had already closed Monroe. Then Morris. And after I started came Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft. Low graduation rates, mostly. So they closed the schools and opened mini-schools in their place. Why, if the kids stayed the same, and the teachers were the same, would mini-schools do anything? Maybe changing a principal might, but even that… So here’s what they did. They capped the size of the mini-schools. All the extra kids (and the Bronx had lots of extra kids) were shunted to the other Bronx High Schools (three were exempted). Most of those reaching Columbus needed additional academic support. The school, nervous about State review, was shunting money into the wrong places to handle a flood of new students with such needs. And students who were placed into classes with work they could not handle became frustrated, and acted out. The school felt like a mess. I had helped a friend, McRib, get a job teaching math with me during my third year at CCHS, but by the next year I was helping him find another place to teach.

Then we learned. Columbus was under pressure. From the superintendent, from the State, we knew that. But we were attacked from a direction we did not expect. Columbus’ numbers were good enough to avoid closure. But the Gates Foundation was funding a project, breaking up big schools into small ones, and was offering bucketloads of money if districts would agree. Our district agreed – I guess that’s the chancellor. But who expected our union, the UFT, would agree? No one I knew. But that’s what happened. Randi Weingarten agreed. David Shulman always maintained that she’d promised things that were never in writing and never happened. But worse than that, the chapter leaders were not consulted. The members were not consulted. (Years later, Gates admitted it was a bad idea. But damage done, he walked away.)

There’s much more of that story, but here I am, in my fifth year at Columbus. I’ve finally gotten kind of ok at teaching. But the school feels like it is veering off the rails, and we just got this announcement that not only are we being closed, but that our UFT leadership made the deal closing us. Do I stay and fight? Or do I move on? In retrospect, my career path would have been different if I’d stayed. But I would have helped fight, and the same things would have played out. Columbus fought closure longer than the other schools that were on the block that day, but it was indeed finally closed. My presence would not have changed that story. In fact, I started applying to schools, got some interviews, and got an offer from a brand new specialized high school located on the Lehman College campus, near my house. In fact, the job offer came a few hours after my interview.

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In twenty-five years I have learned from teachers at many different kinds of high schools. I have met teachers from miserable cookie-cutter mini-schools with a fake theme and an untrainable principal. I have also met teachers who work in well-run mini-schools with strong themes, developing strong culture.

Some of the things they used to about big impersonal schools were true about SOME schools. But many of the big schools really had communities within them, with embedded support. Most older NYC high school teachers I know have fond memories of their academic comprehensive schools.

During the math war I met some amazing folks from the vocational schools. Imagine taking anyone interested in your trade, with no screen. These were “schools of choice” in a very honest sense.

Transfer schools take a special kid of teacher, with a different outlook. I have met some super-dedicated folks in these schools.

There are consortium schools, and international schools, there are specialized high schools (like mine).

In my years teaching and doing union work and professional math work, I have had the opportunity to speak to teachers from a wide variety of schools. I have also met with teachers from out of the city, other districts, out of state. I have been to some of our other NYC high schools. I even once visited a Brooklyn charter high school.

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The high schools in NYC have an amazing history of union strength, of activism. High school TEACHERS have included some amazing activists (I wrote about one, from long ago). Dave Widom, Chapter Leader once upon a time at Erasmus Hall, tells the story: There was asbestos at Erasmus Hall. He held the membership out of the school. Chancellor later praised him for doing the right thing. Can you imagine if we had chapters with such strength September 2020? March 2020?

The high schools have a long history of challenging authority. The high schools were the only division to ever choose their own VP, not one chosen by Shanker or Feldman or Weingarten or Mulgrew. Michael Shulman (not the Dave Shulman I mentioned above) beat George Altomare. What did the Unity leadership do? They changed the rules so that High School teachers do not pick their own VP any more.

High schools were so independent that Shanker created the HS District Rep job to keep tabs on HS Chapter Leaders. That wasn’t enough control for Weingarten, who changed DR from an elected position to one that she appoints. Ironically, I applied several times for the Bronx HS DR job…

Why did Weingarten agree to break up the Bronx high schools? She may have been dazzled by the size of Gates’ offer. Or she may have been dazzled by his flattery of her. She was certainly susceptible to flattery. Us old timers remember how Bloomberg used flattery to sell her a raw deal in 2005…

But there is another theory, one worth at least considering. Breaking up the high schools meant breaking up clusters of independent-minded UFT members, activists. Breaking up the high schools meant breaking up opposition strongholds.

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I haven’t written much about the 2022 election here. I am running with United for Change – for multiple reasons.

Making high school chapters more active, more involved, more central, and ultimately more powerful has to be a high priority.

I am committed to ending the kind of backroom deals that tore apart my school, other high schools in the Bronx, and others in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

And I have to mention health care, including protecting Medicare from Mulgrew, and pivoting our political action (the UFT leadership is opposing single payer. I want to turn that to supporting single payer).

This list could get long, should get long, but not right here and right now. Just one last, multi-parter:

  • Members’ should have their voices heard. We need to guarantee that information is flowing.
  • This includes shifting focus from consultation minutes alone, to consultation minutes AND chapter meeting agendas. Consultation minutes alone make our members passive recipients of information. The engagement comes at the chapter meetings.
  • Chapters elect Chapter Leaders. Good. But Chapter Leaders should elect District Reps. And we all should elect the Exec Board and the AFT and NYSUT delegates. Changes to elections should be one of the first things United for Change should work on.
  • But there’s another aspect of member voice that matters, and needs to be recognized. When members are in schools where their administration does not respect them, abuses them, scares them, what do those members do? Stand up! Fight back! is the answer we all want to hear. But what about places where members are brave enough to call their District Rep, but are not ready to organize? When those members make their voices heard, it must be up to the apparatus of the union, the leadership and reps, to speak for members who are not ready to speak, to stand up for members who cannot stand up for themselves. And when that happens, that will be a big change from the Unity-controlled UFT.

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My opponent is Janella Hinds, the incumbent HS VP. Janella has a strong sense of justice, and right and wrong. She is very smart, and an effective communicator. I have worked with her. I have great respect for her. If there were no caucuses or parties, I would probably support her.

But we do have caucuses, and being a member of Unity caucus means at crucial moments (including votes) Janella functions as a caucus member, and not as the brilliant individual who she is. I don’t know what role Janella had in the Medicare Advantage Plan, which was hashed out by the Municipal Labor Coalition, where she represents the UFT.

And so I am running against Janella not out of animus or disrespect, but in spite of liking her, and regarding her highly. We do need a change in the leadership caucus. But I still wish Janella well.

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This is a big election. I guess they all are – right – when does someone tell you an election is not a big deal?

But this is a big one. One party rule is at stake. Healthcare is at stake. A different, inclusive vision of member involvement is possible.

And as the events unfold, we may have an opportunity to reinvigorate our union in the high schools.

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Ballots are going to be mailed later today. Look for them in the coming days.

When you get your ballot, open it and vote. You can vote for me, and the entire United for Change slate by checking the box on the left.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. UFT permalink
    April 8, 2022 am30 9:25 am 9:25 am

    Just a quick questjon and that how does one who works for the nycdoe get a job at the UFT?

    • April 8, 2022 pm30 10:46 pm 10:46 pm

      The vast majority working for the UFT got the job through a straight up patronage system – join Unity, or signal willingness to join, in consideration…

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