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NYSUT chief Magee gives union more-aggressive public face

Few outsiders knew anything about Karen Magee before the head of the state teachers union ousted a predecessor considered too willing to compromise and immediately escalated the public war against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers.

Since Magee took over last April, New York State United Teachers has:

• Funneled millions of dollars into legislative campaigns across the state to influence lawmakers who would ultimately decide on teacher evaluations;

• Changed the makeup of the Board of Regents, including ousting Western New York’s longtime pro-reform representative; and

• Gone head to head with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is pushing for tougher evaluations for teachers.

NYSUT has long been influential in state politics. But Magee, who is in Buffalo this week for the union’s annual convention, has raised its public profile and the level of confrontation, blazing an assertive public awareness campaign spanning all mediums, from television ads to social media.

“We had disagreements with the former president,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. “He was less combative and more willing to find a compromise, whereas there are certain things I don’t believe you compromise on.”

As an example of her style, Magee made her point about state standardized tests in the same direct manner she was known for even before taking over the union presidency.

“This is insanity,” she said in a recorded message that went out to teachers and parents across New York. “Gov. Cuomo is forcing schools to use tests as a hammer … We are fighting back.”

Many credit her robocall with encouraging more than 160,000 students to opt out of state tests this year, forcing education leaders on the defensive about how to handle scores of schools and districts now out of compliance with federal test-taking requirements.

Magee came into the job following a heated election, which drew out legions of union leaders frustrated that her predecessor did not take a more aggressive stance fighting mandates coming from Albany.

“We didn’t feel like he was doing the kind of fighting we wanted to do,” Rumore said. “It didn’t seem like he was willing to go into battle.”

Magee’s more confrontational strategy has gained attention on both sides of the ideological divide, with supporters and detractors painting her as a hero defending public education or a villain trying to destroy it.

“It is mind-boggling that a so-called education leader would be heading up a campaign to undermine standards and basically encourage kids to ditch school,” said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of Students First, an education reform organization. “Karen Magee’s aggressive push to exploit the anxiety of parents to settle political scores with the governor will not improve our schools or help educate a single child. It’s time for the unions to stop using children as political pawns and put the focus back on students.”

Magee is comfortable with her approach despite those who are casting aspersions.

“If aggressive is defined by standing up for my members and public education,” she said. “then I’ll own that.”

Long way from roots

Magee’s role as president of one of the country’s most influential teachers unions – and nemesis to a governor many believe has presidential ambitions – is far removed from where she started her education career: A kindergarten classroom.

Magee spent about 30 years working in the Harrison Central Schools, teaching kindergarten and then fifth grade before becoming an academic intervention specialist helping students who fall behind.

It was there she saw firsthand how an onslaught of state and federal reforms played out in the classroom.

“What I would see was the increased level of stress on teachers,” Magee said.

School changed, in Magee’s view, from a place where students could learn and explore to a factory focused on cranking out high test scores.

The higher the stakes, the harder the grind.

“It was a gradual progression,” she said. “Once the stakes got higher, we lost the purpose.”

Her experience reflected what was being felt in school districts all over the state, where an undercurrent of dissatisfaction was bubbling to the surface.

“I think because, until recently, she was a classroom teacher she is still acting in a way that reflects the perspective of the average teacher in a classroom,” said Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski.

In some pockets, teachers and union leaders were becoming increasingly frustrated that top NYSUT leaders were not more proactive fighting the litany of mandates coming out of Albany. That was particularly true in Western New York, where tumultuous times in the Buffalo schools coupled with a strong anti-testing sentiment in the suburbs touched off a statewide push to change the union’s statewide leadership.

“I was really just looking for change and fresh ideas,” said Joseph Najuch, president of the Newfane Teachers Association. “I felt that change was good. And I don’t regret my decision.”

Magee had already established herself as a no-nonsense and direct union leader, who as president of the Harrison Association Teachers for 11 years was one of the most high-profile labor leaders in the Lower Hudson Valley.

She also served on boards for NYSUT and the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, as well as being an officer for the regional AFL-CIO.

Those roles gave Magee a front-row seat to things unfolding in Albany, which were a source of frustration for many of her colleagues.

“I didn’t see a vision or a strategic plan for the organization,” she said. “I saw a culture of appeasement.”

Many local labor leaders agreed.

“The like-minded people just came together,” she said.

That was the beginning of a divisive race that pitted Magee against eight-year incumbent Richard Ianuzzi and split many union delegates between the two candidates. It was a bitter fight that had both sides slinging mud and accusing their opponent of dirty politics.

Magee earned endorsements from the state’s largest – and arguably most influential – teachers unions, including those in New York City, Buffalo and Rochester.

Ultimately, about 3,000 delegates representing 1,200 local unions elected Magee as the union’s third president – and the first woman to lead the organization.

Her first promise: To make the union the most influential labor organization in New York State.

She set to work immediately.

High-pressure initiation

Magee stepped into an already politically charged situation, with the governor and some lawmakers alike vowing to push dramatic reforms to the state’s education system.

“You go into a hotly contested election with a lot of contention on both sides,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City. “Those are not ideal circumstances to go into office under. At the same time, you have to figure out how to tell everyone we need to come together because education is under constant attack.”

In her first days on the job, Magee met with regional directors to plan a transition and strategy.

That included a robust public awareness campaign across a variety of mediums, from television ads to Facebook and Twitter. She promised to organize rallies and protests in every corner of the state.

“Now is not the time for complacency,” she said in a video message to members.

Election season also loomed, including the race for governor.

Although NYSUT had remained somewhat quiet during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, that was about to change. Magee facilitated meetings with both Cuomo and his opponent Rob Astorino to have them vie for the union’s endorsement.

The governor’s race was just one battle. NYSUT funneled millions of dollars into legislative campaigns, much of it aiming to unseat incumbents in the Republican-controlled Senate, which was considered pro-reform. That included $3 million into the Buffalo contest for Marc C. Panepinto to unseat Mark J. Grisanti, making it one of the most expensive races of the season.

“The union leadership, Karen and others, are very skillful lobbyists,” said Donald A. Ogilvie, interim superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools and former director of Erie 1 BOCES. “They have the ability to provide support or withhold support. That gives them power.”

Even as NYSUT was successful in the Panepinto race, however, it saw few other successes in the Senate elections.

And although it tried to exercise its sway in the election of members to the Board of Regents – which resulted in the ouster of longtime Western New York Regent Robert M. Bennett – its overall record was mixed.

Following the election, however, the group turned its attention back to Cuomo, who was rumored to be ready to make school reform a key priority in his budget. That included a push for a teacher evaluation system that would make it more difficult for educators to earn good marks. He also pledged to use state funding as leverage to entice districts to implement the reforms he wants.

Much of their strategy has involved mobilizing the group’s roughly 600,000 members, with Magee saying she wants to capitalize on the power of the group’s rank and file members – and in turn the parents and communities they have ready access to.

“They have an expansive network,” Ogilvie said. “When you think about the hierarchy of schools, this union has the capacity to touch any school or any community. They can touch anyone at any time.”

That became evident in Magee’s robocall, which went to households all over the state, urging parents to opt out of the standardized tests. The fewer students who take the test, the less meaningful the results, making them essentially useless in teacher evaluations.

Leaving a legacy

In a state where union leadership conjures images of rough and tumble Teamsters, Magee is the antithesis. She showed up for the first day of this week’s conference wearing a hot-pink skirt and oversized pearls, complemented by a Kate Spade purse and neat French manicure.

Although her bold stances and harsh words toward the governor may suggest otherwise, Magee said this isn’t the battle she wants to be fighting. When she thinks of the legacy she may leave, it does not involve teacher evaluations or the Common Core.

Rather, once this battle is done, she wants to use the union’s clout to take a more proactive approach to implementing policies that address issues students and families face outside the classroom.

That includes bridging the wage gap between men and women, something she believes will help families and allow them to better support their children.

She wants to see laws that provide support and education for single mothers who, especially in urban school systems, often shoulder the responsibility for raising children.

She wants to break the cycle of poverty that plagues inner cities and creates seemingly insurmountable challenges for students.

Those are the real things on her mind, even as she prepared to deliver a speech to rally her troops against Cuomo. For now, that is the most pressing issue.

“In the last year, our elected officials have realized that NYSUT has a clearly defined strategy and is going to be in it for the long haul,” Magee said.

“We will be a collective voice that can’t be ignored.”