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Kids Hang in the Balance



Teachers unions for years have taken a "don't blame me" attitude when taxpayers get upset about under-performing public schools. To be fair, there's plenty of blame to go around for the social and educational ills that plague urban school systems.

But, when a teachers union stands squarely in the way of a plan to improve educational opportunities at specific "at-risk" schools, the union is going have trouble hiding its unclean hands.

The plan is the UNO "New Millennium Schools" project, which will place up to five under-performing New Orleans public schools under the oversight of the university's College of Education. UNO will offer free programs to help teachers improve professionally, and in return it will get oversight authority at the schools to try to improve what goes on in the classrooms. At a minimum, participating schools will get resources and outside support in doses that seem extraordinary in comparison to what's available at most local public schools.

This should be a no-brainer.

Let me start by saying I do not know many New Orleans public school teachers personally. However, those that I do know are all extremely dedicated, professional and competent. Clearly, the problems of our public schools cannot all be laid at the feet of teachers or their union.

However, the union is clearly blocking acceptance of the UNO proposal at four of the five schools targeted for assistance as New Millennium Schools. Union leaders say teachers fear the new arrangement may weaken or destroy their collective bargaining rights. Union officials already concede that tenure, salaries and other benefits will be protected.

Protecting collective bargaining rights is a threshold issue with unions, and part of the hang-up is that teachers at participating schools will be taking a leave of absence from the school system to work in the New Millennium Schools project. Union leaders want to make sure that teachers' union contract with the School Board will remain in force after UNO takes the reins at participating schools.

That problem should not be terribly difficult to address. At this point, all appearances indicate that the union wants either to increase its already formidable amount of leverage by holding up the UNO proposal -- or kill the idea outright because it may be a threat to the union's clout. That's too bad, because the union's "protectionist" posture actually hurts those most in need of assistance: the kids in those under-performing schools.

The plan requires that 75 percent of the teachers at participating schools approve the plan. Teachers at Medard H. Nelson Elementary School did that in short order.

Not so at four other schools -- Avery Alexander and Gentilly Terrace elementary schools and P. A. Capdau and Francis W. Gregory junior high schools.

When teachers and union leaders first balked at those schools, the School Board and UNO redoubled their efforts to win teachers' approval. It has not been forthcoming -- and now some fear the entire project might be delayed a year. Considering that School Board members now have to find a replacement for Schools Supt. Alphonse Davis Jr., a one-year delay in the UNO project could kill it.

At least one School Board member, Jimmy Fahrenholtz, suspects the union of trying to sabotage the UNO plan. Fahrenholtz last week expressed fears that the project will die because of the union's refusal to move on the issue.

Union president Brenda Mitchell says the lack of movement is on UNO's side.

I'm not privy to the negotiations, but it appears to me that UNO has already moved quite a bit just by offering its services to the cause of improving public education. If teachers and their union leaders don't come around quickly, the union will have a tough time trying to win public support the next time it goes to the bargaining table.

Meanwhile, the kids continue to be the biggest losers of all.

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