Huge grievance victory for school secretaries

by Jim Callaghan

Apr 10, 2008 4:32 PM

DOE witnesses prove UFT’s argument that work was illegally given to other staff

In a stunning decision, an arbitrator ruled on March 21 that the Department of Education violated the UFT contract — and federal law — by giving school secretaries’ work to non-licensed personnel.

He ordered the DOE to “cease and desist” from its practices.

The arbitrator found that, by allowing school aides and other DOE staffers to handle confidential student records, the DOE broke the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. School secretaries are licensed by the state and are required to take classes on confidentiality.

“This is a major victory for the chapter and the broader labor movement that was made possible by the dozens of school secretaries who were willing to come forward,” UFT President Randi Weingarten said. “The union made the arbitrator aware of more than 300 instances in which school aides, school business managers, parent coordinators and family paras were being given secretarial work to do.”

Handling the grievance for the UFT was Special Representative Michelle Daniels.

The DOE’s case was replete with testimony from the agency’s witnesses that in effect helped the UFT’s case.

One principal called by the DOE as a witness said she knew she would get in trouble if anyone found out that school aides were handling confidential records. Another DOE witness, a DC 37 official, testified that he filed a grievance when he found out that school aides were doing secretarial work.

In fact, according to Daniels, many of the DOE witnesses actually bolstered the UFT case by providing information that all sorts of work was being done in the schools by those not holding a secretary license.

“The DOE tried to prove that the practice was widespread and had been going on for years and, therefore, the UFT had accepted it and waived its right to grieve,” Daniels said. “But we showed that, in fact, the DOE could produce witness testimony and evidence pertaining to only 2 percent of the schools citywide.”

One of the main arguments raised by DOE lawyers Russell J. Platzek and Karen Solimondo was that a DOE document written in 1976 — Special Circular 31, which delineates the job duties of secretaries — was “old,” and therefore obsolete.

One after the other, the DOE witnesses testified and with each passing day, they made the UFT case stronger. Henry Garrido, an official from DC 37, recalled how one day he saw his members — school aides — handling the school payroll. He told the arbitrator that he grieved it “because it was not a school aide function.”

Sana Nassar, the principal at Harry S. Truman HS, testified that school aides were in the school’s record room, which contains confidential files, when a school secretary was absent. “I didn’t mean to break the rules” she said.

Also testifying as a DOE witness but helping the UFT win its case was Frances DeSanctis, the principal of Richmond Hill HS. DeSanctis is a former school secretary and said that school aides were accessing confidential records.

She testified that when she was a secretary and saw school aides in the record room, she blurted out: “Oops, I can get into trouble.”

When she was asked by Daniels why she made that statement, her response was: “I knew that only school aides were in the records room and that was not their job title.”

Also greatly adding weight to the UFT’s case was Chancellor Joel Klein’s Step 2 Hearing Officer Marcel Kshensky, a former principal and former superintendent of the Hauppauge school district, who testified that a principal’s secretary did indeed have access to personnel records and that such work should not be a job handled by a school aide because it was confidential.

The UFT got a big boost when Joseph Loschiavo of the DOE’s Division of Human Resources testified. He said that the relatively recently created position of school business manager was not created or designed to take over the duties of school secretaries. When asked if the business managers should handle student files, his response was “absolutely not.”

After further questioning by Daniels, he also testified that the titles family worker, parent coordinator or school aide were not created to usurp the duties of school secretaries.

The arbitrator made it clear to the DOE that the secretarial duties and responsibilities outlined in Special Circular 31 are to be performed exclusively by licensed school secretaries and not by those with other job titles.

“Unless the school aides, family workers, educational assistants, school business managers, parent coordinators and health aides hold that license,” he wrote, “they cannot be assigned the school secretaries duties set forth in Special Circular 31.”

That circular dictates that specific clerical tasks that family workers do should be in the context of their job function.

“To utilize a family worker for clerical tasks that are beyond the scope of those listed responsibilities is in direct contravention of the circular,” Daniels said.

The school secretary’s license requirements are spelled out in a Chancellor’s Regulation. The secretaries are required to complete 30 semester hours of college courses, including at least six semester hours of courses in education and in school records and accounts. School aides are not required to meet any such requirements.

Weingarten said it took courage for the secretaries to preserve the integrity of their license.

“However, even with this tremendous victory, our work is not done,” she added.

One concern raised by secretaries is that the DOE might retaliate by dumping all sorts of work on the secretary.

“I would encourage all secretaries to immediately report any instances in which principals or other supervisory personnel are not complying with the arbitrator’s award,” Jackie Ervolina, chair of the School Secretaries Chapter, said. If that happened, Ervolina added, the union would go back to the arbitrator and ask for immediate compliance.

She said it is important that secretaries use the contract and file a Workload Dispute immediately. “This contractual right, which we fought for in the 2002 contract, will allow our members to specify all of their daily tasks and help get them the relief,” she said.

Ervolina recounted how difficult it was at each arbitration session to listen calmly to the testimony of the DOE’s witnesses.

“Our duties are clearly spelled out in the Special Circular, a document that the DOE itself issued, and they are very much relevant in today’s school office,” she said. “It does not take a great mental leap to understand that if you typed a letter on a typewriter and now on a computer or if you prepared a payroll on paper and now on a computer, it is the same work — only done in a different way!”

The contract doesn’t walk and talk by itself, Weingarten said. “Here our courageous secretaries took a giant step to fight for their rights by enforcing the contract and they won. The secretaries’ role in the school community remains as important as ever and the arbitrator made that crystal clear to the DOE.”

Faye Hugel, a school secretary, was also elated by the decision.

“After a lengthy struggle, reason has finally prevailed,” she said. “Our professional school secretary license stands protected — the one the Department of Education requires us to have to do our job. We earned our license by putting in the time and training in order to pass the standards for licensure.”

Hugel praised the union.

“If it were not for the UFT standing behind us, we would have been eliminated one by one,” she said.

The arbitrator retained jurisdiction in the case to ensure that his decision is correctly implemented. 1