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UTN shows up to support colleagues amidst “unwarranted acts,” union president demands better plan for September

Schools by: Joanne Kountourakis, April 30, 2022

UTN members outside of the Brosnan building last Tuesday, April 26. The group gathered before a BOE meeting in support of the district’s coaches, health and physical education teachers. Photo via UTN Facebook page.

At least 100 members of United Teachers of Northport (UTN) showed up in solidarity with the district’s coaches, health and physical education teachers this past Tuesday, April 26, gathering outside the Brosnan building prior to that evening’s board of education meeting. Wearing neon shirts reading “We live here too,” the large group of teachers and staff reiterated just weeks before the district’s annual budget vote that 50% of their members live – and vote – in the district, said UTN President Stacey Weisberg.

In a conversation with the Northport Journal the day after the meeting, Ms. Weisberg said there were several reasons the group came out: “One, to support our colleagues in the phys ed department, in the health department, and our coaches.”

Although Ms. Weisberg wasn’t able to comment on the specifics regarding the union support of its coaches, health and physical education teachers, hushed whispers of harassment claims and other allegations quickly circulated the room the night of the meeting.

Last month, the Journal obtained from a source close to the district a March 25 letter sent to all UTN members reiterating the district’s “Whistleblower Policy.” The letter offered an explanation of the protections afforded to UTN members in the event they “chose to issue a statement, be interviewed, or file a complaint against a supervisor employed by the Northport-East Northport UFSD.”

The district’s Disclosure of Wrongful Conduct Policy reads like the same whistleblower policies upheld by boards of education throughout the state, prohibiting retaliatory action being taken against any individual who, “in good faith,” reports allegations of wrongful conduct.

UTN members attended the board of education meeting on April 26 with signs of support for their colleagues.

The March 25 UTN letter alludes to a pattern of behavior, including allegations of “unwarranted acts,” by a supervisor in the district. When asked about the allegations, Superintendent of Schools Robert Banzer could not confirm with the Journal if specific complaints have been filed against a supervisor within the district, stating only that he could not comment on matters of personnel.

Supporting their colleagues was just one of the reasons UTN members showed up at the board meeting, said Ms. Weisberg.

“There were two schools that were closed this year,” she told the Journal. “The community was promised that the administration had a firm plan on how to handle it and… there is no plan.”

Ms. Weisberg did not mince words, citing issues with the fifth grade, now in middle school, as well as class size caps on a longer list of concerns. “I think it’s time that the community knows what the hell is actually going on,” she said. Administration, Ms. Weisberg continued, is not adhering to a contract that they negotiated over 18 months ago.

On April 28, 2021, the board voted to move forward with a district reorganization that included the closing of Bellerose Avenue and Dickinson Avenue elementary schools.

“The board voted to close the two buildings. And somehow, administration convinced them that they had a solid plan in place. But they didn’t,” said Ms. Weisberg, who is currently pushing for arbitration on two different grievances filed with the district. “I would say more than half of everything that was promised [by administration] has not happened, and is not happening.”

She uses Norwood Avenue Elementary School as an example, where some classrooms are now at or near administrative guidelines capacity and some special classes like physical education are above the district cap, said Ms. Weisberg. Currently when students with individualized education plans (IEPs) attend general education settings for specials, the class sizes go over cap – something that should have been anticipated, she said.

The Northport-East Northport UFSD 2022-2023 Budget Overview projects class sizes at Norwood to be below the contractual guideline cap range of 23 to 26 for next school year, with the highest projected amount of students in one class at 22.5 for grade 4. (Admin guidelines recommend a class size of 20 for kindergarten and up to 24 for grade 4.)

“The numbers, you can see, there’s nothing exceeding the contract,” said Mr. Banzer referencing the budget overview projections. He did say there are some fluctuation in the specials classes, and that administration is looking for ways to handle those fluctuations, including making sure there are extra hands – from an aide, for example – when necessary.

“We have had and will continue to have conversations about that,” he said.

Though 2021-2022 has been one of her most challenging school years, said Ms. Weisberg, she is able to move past the growing pains of this year and is focusing on the future. She knows not all problems can be fixed right away.

She said she began asking for a plan for next school year seven months ago, and has continued to be vocal about recurring issues at every opportunity, including at board/teacher relations meetings in October 2021 and March of this year.

“It's the same problem. I am very transparent about what the problems are. And there is no plan on how to fix them for September. At all,” she said. Ms. Weisberg, who taught in the Northport-East Northport district for two decades and is a former board of education member in a neighboring district, said she has spoken with BOE members and lawyers for the union and the district, with no resolution. “Although I like the board, and I think that we are in a really good place, they need to call administration to task more,” she said.

Seventy teachers retired last year, and some are being excessed this year, said Ms. Weisberg. Foundation aid is plentiful, she added, with the district getting an extra $4 million this time around. “They’re not going for a zero budget,” she said, referencing a tax levy increase of approximately .66% adopted at the last board of education meeting. “And they haven’t gotten rid of one administrator. So we’re a very top heavy group.

“We have to start getting the community to pay attention. I’m not asking for more money. I’m asking for them to follow the contract and for them to fix [what] they created by pretending that they had a real solid plan to close the buildings when they didn’t.”

Mr. Banzer disagrees.

“We went through a lot over the last two years in preparing for the reorganization,” the superintendent said in a conversation with the Journal. Committees such as the future study and community advisory committees, formed both prior to and during Covid, included broad representation from parents, administrators, support staff, and teachers, including members of the UTN, he said.

“I understand that, particularly in the last couple of years, there have been some very significant changes, obviously the reorganization, obviously Covid,” Mr. Banzer said. “There’s a lot going on. And change is not easy. It certainly isn’t… And we recognize that.” He said that the conversations and meetings that began prior to this school year continue now and that efforts have been made to make the transition easier.

He referenced the parking lot at Norwood Avenue Elementary School, a situation Ms. Weisberg has been concerned about since September, when she told the Journal that an increase in staff and little to no adjacent parking had left teachers parking in the residential neighborhoods around Norwood Avenue. That issue, said Mr. Banzer, will get fixed this summer, with additional spaces being added to the lot.

“So there certainly have been some growing pains. There is no doubt about it,” said Mr. Banzer. “But we’ve had multiple conversations and opportunities to address these issues…. Where there have been hiccups, we’ve worked hard to address those. And there are some, maybe there are a few more sticking points that we need to work through, more opportunities for clarity, and to ask questions and to go back and forth and come to some conclusions about those things. And that’s what we’re doing. These conversations are not over, they’re continuing, and we’re working to make this a great environment for our families, for our students and for all of our staff.”

Ms. Weisberg urged parents to get more involved. “I’m surprised that people are allowing what’s going on,” she said. The UTN president said repeated attempts to resolve issues have fallen flat, and that she remains concerned about September. In addition to class sizes, she fears there is not enough mental health staff available throughout the district, particularly in Norwood, which has seen an increase in ESL students, a school that has never had a substantial ESL population, she said. In its general education, IEP and ESL population, she continued, the district is seeing a major uptick in mental health needs, including some trauma experienced by newer students, adding that there “is not enough mental health staff to help” all the kids who are struggling.

Regarding the social and emotional needs of the district's students, “we take that very, very seriously,” said Mr. Banzer. He said staff is constantly working on addressing both individual needs of students and maintaining a positive building culture. The district is looking to bring a behavior specialist, usually contracted through BOCES, in-house, and added a counselor who will split time between Norwood Avenue and Pulaski Road elementary schools. “We certainly have listened to and responded to those types of requests,” said Mr. Banzer.

Like Ms. Weisberg, the superintendent urged parents to stay proactive and bring concerns to the administrators at their children’s buildings. “We always want to make sure that we’re listening and to let parents know that they’re being heard,” he said.

Ms. Weisberg said she will continue to fight for the help and solutions she believes are missing, and will advocate for both the teachers and their students. “Because when the kids are happy, the teachers are happy,” she said.

Mr. Banzer acknowledged the challenges and said the work is not over.

“In a place where you have 1,000 employees, sometimes there’s issues, sometimes there's questions, sometimes there are differences of opinion and different perspectives and we certainly want to continue to work to come to resolutions regarding those issues,” he said.

“There’s been a tremendous transformation over the last two years, and in particular from last year to this year. We are working on those things and will continue to do so. I am so proud of the work of our teachers, our support staff and our administrators under very extraordinary circumstances. There can still be some disagreement that needs to be resolved. But that does not diminish my admiration and pride for how hard our teachers and support staff and administrators have worked and are committed to our students every day."