STAMFORD – With minimal discussion and no outcry from teachers, save for the union president, the Board of Education Tuesday night voted unanimously to allow private teachers to work in two public elementary schools.
School officials said during the meeting that the district pursued a contract with Hubbard Day, a private, for-profit school in Stamford, because the administration was not able to hire 11 needed special education teachers before the school year begins next week.
Now the Stamford Education Association is fighting back.
“It’s a union-busting move,” President John Corcoran said Wednesday morning. “We will file an unfair labor practice charge before the end of the week.”
Corcoran said the union and the office of Superintendent Tamu Lucero reached a handshake deal on July 26 for filling vacant special education teacher positions by working within the contract, only to learn later that the administration was at the same time negotiating with Hubbard Day School.
Meghan Osowieski, director of special education services for Stamford Public Schools, explained during Tuesday’s meeting how administrators came to the deal with Hubbard Day, which will be paid $850,000 to teach 16 students with autism at Northeast and Springdale elementary schools this year.
“We had a conversation around the partnerships we have with brick-and-mortar buildings,” Osowieski said of Hubbard Day, which the school district also is paying about $2 million to provide special education instruction for another 13 students at Hubbard Day School on Southfield Avenue.
Faced with the teacher shortage, administrators reached out to Hubbard Day “to see if it was something they could help us with,” Osowieski said. “They had approached us before to say they were looking to expand their program because they had the staffing.”
Private operator either way
Under the contract, Hubbard Day will provide two teachers to staff two classes of eight students each, one at Northeast and one at Springdale, plus a number of paraeducators and behavioral specialists.
“Is the alternative to this program to send students to out-of-district placements?” board member Josh Esses asked during the meeting.
“Yes,” Lucero replied.
“Are out-of-district placements run by private operators?” Esses asked.
Osowieski said yes.
“So it’s a matter of which private entity will serve these students,” Esses concluded.
He also wanted to know whether the administration will continue to try to hire special education teachers, and Lucero said yes.
Board Vice President Andy George said that, under the one-year contract with Hubbard Day, the district may “terminate the outsourced person on less than a 30-day notice.”
“This is not a long-term [arrangement] meant to supplant any teacher that would be hired,” George said. “If we are able to fill this position, the contracted service goes away. This is not some sort of permanent replacement for a special education teacher. It’s only a year long at best.”
But Corcoran said Wednesday that the hiring of private teachers to staff special education classes in public schools is the first step toward a slippery slope for the union.
“They are trying to take away bargaining-unit positions and contract them out,” Corcoran said. “We have, and continue to have, our special education teachers fill in for unfilled positions. We’re doing it in high school, middle school and elementary school. Teachers who take on the extra workload get additional pay equal to 20 percent of their salary.”
Was a teacher turned away?
Corcoran said the union has filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for school district documents to investigate a report that a special education teacher who was set to be hired at Northeast on Aug. 1 was turned away, and instead offered a position at the district’s APPLES pre-K program.
“It’s our understanding that on August 1 this teacher was completing her paperwork to come on board at Northeast, and at that point was told that the position at Northeast is being outsourced, but we have a spot for you at APPLES,” Corcoran said. “On August 1, the day they brought this teacher in to sign her paperwork, they knew they were using Hubbard Day.”
On Aug. 1, Board of Education President Jackie Heftman opened a scheduled special meeting by apologizing that it was starting 34 minutes late, saying the board had been in “a prior meeting.”
Heftman’s “prior meeting” reference was raised Tuesday night, when a caller said the board on Aug. 1 improperly met in executive session, a term used to describe part of a public meeting that is allowed to be held in private.
Under Freedom of Information law, public boards may meet behind closed doors to discuss certain topics such as employee performance, pending litigation, security strategy, or a real estate purchase. Before taking a public meeting into executive session, the board must announce that it is doing so and say which of those general reasons it will discuss.
Heftman said Tuesday that the board, in fact, did not go into executive session on Aug. 1.
“We were in a collective bargaining strategy session, which is considered a non-meeting that does not have to be posted,” Heftman said. “I wish people would stop referring to it as executive session, because it wasn’t.”
The union hopes to learn more from its FOI requests, Corcoran said.
“We’ll have to see if this information shows that this teacher was offered the Northeast job and then it was rescinded because it had been outsourced,” he said.
Cost as an issue
The district may be allowing private teachers into public classrooms not only to fill teacher vacancies but to save money, Corcoran said.
The Board of Education pays considerable out-of-district tuition costs with contracted special-education providers. Tuesday, for example, the board approved a purchase of $6,358,713 for seven providers to serve 41 special education students in out-of-district classrooms. The contract includes $2,012,783 for Hubbard Day to serve 13 students at its Southfield Avenue school.
Lucero told the board that the average outplacement cost is $70,000 per student.
Hubbard Day will be paid $53,125 per student to educate the 16 students at Northeast and Springdale.
Hubbard Day will be paid $154,829 per student to educate 13 students on its own campus.
Lucero told school board members that the Hubbard Day contract includes student testing and evaluation.
All nine school board members voted to approve the contract with Hubbard Day.
‘Any trust … is gone’
Corcoran said the deal the union believed it had reached with the administration would have allowed Lucero to bring in new teachers three steps higher on the contractual salary scale, an effort to boost recruitment.
The deal would have capped special education class sizes at 15 students in elementary and middle-school grades, and 18 students in high school grades, and teachers whose classes exceed the caps would get a pay hike equal to 20 percent of their salary, Corcoran said. That would range from an extra $11,000 for a teacher with a master’s degree to an extra $23,600 for a teacher with a sixth-year degree.
The union wanted to repair relations with the Lucero administration after past clashes over pay freezes, high school block schedules, and other issues, Corcoran said, but that door appears to have closed.
“This is an all-new low. Any trust we tried to build is gone,” he said. “We are strongly urging teachers to continue to give 100 percent during contractual hours, as they do, but when you get home, shut it off. You can’t keep staying up until midnight multiple nights because you have three IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) due in two weeks. The district counts on special education teachers doing that.”
Teachers in the special education field have been leaving the job for well over a decade, citing heavy workloads, long hours, and low pay.
The U.S. Department of Education reported in the spring that a longstanding national shortage of special education teachers was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and 45 percent of the nation’s schools had vacancies at the end of the last school year. Nearly four out of five schools reported difficulties in hiring, according to the department.