Sunday 20th May 2012

by James


As you may have heard, BTUVotes is an active, grassroots initiative that proposes to help the Boston Teachers Union become more inclusive and accessible to its members by having voting happen by mail-in ballot.  I have been happy to be a supporter of this initiative.  I’m also in the process of writing about the topic in my next Teaching Pulse column for the Boston Union Teacher newspaper.

In the meanwhile, a fellow BPS teacher recently suggested (and I completely agree) that there should be some kind of online forum for teachers to ask questions, get more information about the initiative, and otherwise get a chance to deeply engage with the ideas behind BTUVotes.

I present this post as the place to do just that.

Feel free to respond with any comment, question, idea, accolade or concern by adding a comment to this post (you will see directions to do so at the end of this post).  Once a few comments are up, you will see that there is a ‘nested comments’ function so you can respond to the original post or to another individual’s specific comment.  Also remember to check the box underneath your comment so that you receive notifications via email when others respond to it.  This is a helpful way of keeping the conversation as lively as possible.

Do be as direct as you are willing.  As the moderator of this independent website, I will maintain the responsibility for making sure that all comments are appropriate for public view and only filter content for inappropriate commentary or incomplete attribution (click here for a description of requested etiquette).  When you create a comment, please begin by introducing your name and the school where you currently teach.

If you are new to BTUVotes, you can find more information here:

Website:     https://sites.google.com/site/increasebtuinvolvement/

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/BTUVotes/

Twitter:      www.twitter.com/btuvotes

Email:        BTUVotes@gmail.com

Thanks and looking forward to the conversation!

[Click here and scroll down to see and add comments to this post]

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19 Responses to “BTUVotes Open Discussion Forum”

  1. Francisca Wu says:

    Hi, I’m a Sped Pre-K Teacher at the Josiah Quincy Elementary. Thank you James for this forum, and the discussions here are wonderful!

    While I see all the counter-points being made here, I support the mail-in ballot, hands down, for all the reasons listed above. But most importantly, I believe this would encourage a higher voting turnout, and increase active involvement from now on.

    Let me share an experience involving my parents’ old condo in Brighton. Quite a few years ago, my parents moved here from NYC, after having lived in their single-family home for years. New to the town and new to the concept of condominium, they bought this place simply because it suited its needs in terms of price, space, location. Little that they knew back then, something called “owner ratio” would impact their quality of life there. As a college town, Brighton condos have a high ratio of rental apartments — their condo is one. Couple years later, after having gone to the board meeting a couple of times, my dad found out that the board decided to borrow $1M to “fix the facade”, a project that spends a lot of money up front but does not provide a lot of long-term improvement for residents. Meanwhile, there is a water pouch in their basement unit for years, windows were replaced at one point but the leaking continued.

    Long story short, the condo board thought since the voting turnout in the past years (or decades?) had been so low (because this is a lot of out-of-town owners’ rental property), the few votes they’d collect would turn in their favor. That belief was reflected in their attitude (which was not very pleasant), and their actions (ex. sending out memo/proceeding with decisions BEFORE the vote was even cast). As the news broke, my dad and a couple live-in owners scattered out to various cities and towns to get in touch of the other owners, in hopes to collect enough signatures not only to stop this mindless projects (which btw, who benefits from it? The contractor, who coincidentally is one of the board members’ cousin), also to bring the board down.

    These few people worked tirelessly and prevailed: a majority of signatures were collected in opposition of the project. This shows “together, we stand a chance to succeed; divided, we’re bound to failure”! Sadly, however, the ending wasn’t as happy as we would. Since the loan was already approved AND signed, money is still going to be borrowed, and condo fees will increase. I can’t remember if the project had to go through anyway or it was brought to a halt. In any case, though they had also successfully dismembered the current board, since no one else wanted to run, pretty much the SAME people went right back onto the board.

    At that point, my parents decided to sell the place and get the h*ll out.

    But this story tells us, not having accessibility to voting events (by one factor or another), not keeping ourselves informed, and/or going around with the nonchalant attitude on something that directly concerns our livelihood — these all can lead to disasters, especially when the people “up there” get too comfortable with the status quo. However, I believe that given a matter close to heart and given proper channels, voters WILL make a considerable effort to voice their concern. We won’t get 100% of the membership to think the same way as we do on every topic, but that is not our goal anyway. The overarching idea of this initiative is to increase membership input and encourage discussions, so the Union can be what we want it to be — which, in turn, shall decrease that “nonchalant” mentality as well.

    But this takes effort, obviously. And time to re-build the overall nonchalant to even negative sensations I feel is generally present in the membership right now. Equally important is, when this battle is won, WHO is going to be the successor(s)? Leadership places a lot of weight on how an organization behaves and performs. Not only we need people who are pro-Union and pro-public education, we’ll also need someone who wholeheartedly believe that his or her job is “for the people, of the people, and by the people”. Like our local representatives, Senators, even the President. The problems we’re facing these days mostly stem out of the fact that, these people easily forgot what they have sworn in to do once power is reached.

    If something’s not right, if there is a problem, we should take a stand, and make the effort to correct it. This is a social RESPONSIBILITY every member of society should have, and only from that we shall enjoy our rights as citizens. Otherwise, the world we live in is going to sink, at that point, we shall lose the right to complain because we didn’t care before. So speak now, or forever hold your peace.

  2. Sherry Pedone says:

    My name is Sherry Pedone and I am a music teacher at Mildred Ave. I want to start by applauding the effort of those of you that have shared their thoughts on the mail in ballot initiative. This discussion is great and healthy. That said, I do want to express my concerns regarding this initiative.

    My first concern is of equity. A candidate running for office at a larger school would have an unfair advantage over a candidate running from a smaller school with less members.

    My second concern is cost. There is the cost of the actual dissemination of ballots, stamps, collection and counting of ballots. Furthermore, the vast majority of folks running are running for unpaid postions. The cost of campaign materials is rather high. Im concerned that for those running, the costs would go up prohibitively. I believe this would discourage many people from running for a postion.

    My third concern is of confidentiality. I don’t trust how the ballots would remain confidential. I’m not personally for open ballots and do not like the idea of people knowing who I vote for. I am able to vote for my civic leaders confidentially and want to do so with my union leadership.

    I don’t believe that a mail in ballot will increase participation. It will increase paper ballots, but does not insure, or even encourage by any means a thoughtful discourse of ideas. I believe bringing people in to the union hall itself increases participation. Inviting the stake holders in to discuss and participate in issues concerning our community at large, this is what will increase participation. That is what we are doing as we form and build the Womens Rights Committee. It is also what we are doing at CAB meetings.
    I believe we need more of this. A Human Rights Committee? Social Justice Committee?

    If the hours are inconvenient for people to get to the union hall, parhaps the hours could change. Maybe a 6am to 6pm time slot would benefit people more. I don’t see anything wrong with people coming to the union hall for a few minutes one day every two years.
    I dont mean to be snarky, but I think it would be safe to say if the union was handing out $100 dollar bills, folks would find their way over.
    Perhaps a mail in ballot would be appropriate if there were extenuating circumstances such as a medical issue.

    All said and done, I would like to hear what Kristen Pinto has to say. She has been heading the election committee for some time and her integrity is admirable. Her insight on this would be important.

    • Ross Kochman says:

      Hi Sherry,

      I like your point on the equity issue. My question is – does this already happen? Did teachers who ran last year from bigger schools get more votes and end up winning? If not than I think there is something to that point.

      I don’t see how the cost issue matters. Any extra money spent on mail-in ballots would be well worth it so that more people would participate. As far as campaigning goes – facebook is free and so is youtube and the union could easily help candidates figure out how to get information up there. I would be happy to donate my time to help people get their campaign on the internet. I don’t know what other campaign materials are both effective and expensive, but signs and fliers probably don’t win very many votes. I would imagine most votes are won by face to face contact and word of mouth.

      I like your idea about extending hours. 6am-8pm would be much more reasonable. If this mail-in ballots are voted down I hope the hours can be extended.

      I also think your point about confidentiality is a good one, but there must be a way around that. We are smart people, we can figure out a way to create a confidential mail-in ballot.

      If we can work out some of the issues above I really don’t see a reason why we just can’t give this a try. There really isn’t a downside, I mean it’s not like we have super-pacs and corporate backed outside candidates. It’s guaranteed that BTU members will be elected and if that happens with more participation than all the better.

      • Sherry Pedone says:

        Hi Ross,
        I agree… If these concerns are addressed I have no problem with an increase in voter participation. Currently candidates from larger schools would have to encourage their colleagues to make the effort to go in person and vote. I believe that discourages anyone who isn’t passionate about voting. I think larger schools will have an unfair advantage.
        As I stated before, I’m concerned about confidentiality. Until the issues are ironed out, I can’t vote for this initiative. I DO look forward to more discourse on this and hope we can iron out these concerns. If ironed out, I’d support it wholeheartedly.

        • James says:

          I am a teacher working as a Peer Assistant in the Peer Assistance Program.

          Sherry and Ross, really great comment thread so far.. let’s keep on getting at the heart of these issues. I also agree that equity of access, increasing voter participation and confidentiality are centrally important.

          I don’t really follow your last point about candidates from larger schools having an unfair advantage, Sherry. Wouldn’t all candidates be compelled to get their supporters to participate in the voting process, whether from small or large schools? (And actually, shouldn’t it be the entire membership’s responsibility to encourage ALL members to vote?) Please explain..

          The confidentiality and security concerns are really important ones to raise. What’s being proposed is that a neutral, professional third-party provider oversee and process the voting materials– similar to what is being done by other districts that utilize mail in balloting. Security and confidentiality would, if anything, be even more secure. Costs have already been quoted and my understanding is that mail in balloting would average a cost of a $1.25 per member per year. There are also a number of ways to cut costs in our annual expenditure to more than cover these costs.

          What do you both think? Also, might you forward this thread to Kristen as you suggest, Sherry? It’d be great to get her thoughts on these and other issues as well if helpful.

      • Andrea Doremus Cuetara says:

        I am a teacher at the Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH).

        I really appreciate Sherry’s points and the discussion. I think it is possible and important for these concerns to be addressed by the planners before the June 13th meeting so we can all feel comfortable supporting this initiative. I didn’t know there was an election committee (though it makes sense) and I surely hope that Kristen Pinto has been engaged in this process by this time so that we build on past experience and knowledge. Thanks to everyone for their commitment and hard work.

        • Riana Good says:

          I am the Spanish teacher at the BTU school. We agree, Andrea! After reaching out to our elected leaders in April, the first person we contacted was Kristen Pinto to ask for her insights and ideas and hopefully have her support. We know increasing engagement with our elections is also very important to her and she has invested a lot of time and energy to this cause as well.

          • James says:

            I definitely agree. I am absolutely thankful and appreciative of all the efforts (current and past) by Kristen and others to oversee our elections. I reached out again to Kristen the other day to let her know about the above requests and opportunity to share her insights/thoughts but unfortunately, didn’t get the sense that she wanted to share her opinions until the Wed June 13th meeting. Maybe others who have been deeply engaged in the election process in years past can share their thoughts? The more conversation and outreach, the better! It is important to do this right and respectfully… while at the same time, being direct, bold and principled in our opinions.

            (ps. thanks again to all who have made and are continuing to make this forum so rich, powerful and engaging!!)

  3. Ross Kochman says:

    I teach 6th grade at the Harbor School in Boston. I have to admit, I didn’t really care for the union much when I first started teaching four years ago. I drank the kool aid that the media was giving out and I thought “If they’re only looking out for adults, how can they be looking out for the students?” It wasn’t until I met more teachers, struck up more conversations, and became more involved in my community that I realized teachers and their unions are often the only thing looking out for the young people we serve. That’s when I decided to vote. I voted to protect public schools and protect the students we serve from those who want to privatize and profit off of our young people. I voted for union leadership that I thought would agree with this view and take action to do something about it. BTU elections are the most important and most local elections that we as teachers can participate in and the more teachers who do participate, the better.

    I want to re-post two comments that are right on:
    “what we need to NOT be afraid of is our own members. Instead of being afraid of outside groups influencing them, we need to invite our members in.” Lets engage more members and have more conversations.

    “And if our members do not understand what we stand for as a union and WHY, then we must do a better job communicating this. I’m really committed to showing our members that the BTU is relevant and a force for social good. It is. I think showing them we want to permanently remove impediments to voting—not maintain them—is a good first step.” Let’s continue the task of making the BTU a force for social good. It has been started by those before us and needs all of its members to keep it going.

  4. Steve Owens says:

    I am a pre K-6 music teacher and president of the Washington Central Educators Association (Vermont-NEA). Love the comments! Both the length and the depth. BTU rocks!

    That said, let me relate my experience in Vermont. We vote by mail and it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Why? Not only does voting have to be easy, there has to be something to vote about. Without substance, you can pay people to vote and they won’t show up. Attend to the quality of discourse and people will vote. “James Liou is a great guy and we should vote for him because he works hard for the union” won’t cut it. You actually have to say something.

    If your union is frightened of controversy this won’t work. If you are worried that dissent might turn up in the papers, forget about it. The problem with membership engagement is that you end up with engaged members – and they are unpredictable. Be careful what you wish for – if you need control, settle for the status quo.

    But if you have the stomach for democracy, meaning that people can actually sort out real issues without fear, then the vote by mail proposal will work. The technical problem is how to make democracy consistent with solidarity.

  5. Karen L. McCarthy says:

    Wow, I am so excited to read such thoughtful comments. When we started seriously talking about increasing participation and engagement in our union, and then launched the BTUVotes initiative to make elections equally accessible for all, we were hoping it would generate rich conversations about our union. This is critical to its health and success.

    In reply to some of Al’s points, the BTUVotes initiative is about ending—not furthering—the segmentation of voting among our membership. Our elections ARE segmented, the ease of voting greatly differs across the city, benefiting some demographics while inadvertently working to suppress others (e.g,. working parents, late schools–see my earlier post). The bottom line is that this initiative is about increasing participation and making voting equally accessible to all. Ultimately, I wish that people would take this initiative on its own merits—is removing impediments from some groups to vote good or bad? I would also ask anyone who thinks about this initiative, if he or she has any better solutions? Currently, we have 13% of our membership voting. That’s nearly 90% who aren’t. What does that say about the health of us as a union and what are we doing to combat this lack of engagement amongst our members?

    BTUVotes is a grassroots effort of BTU Members. All of the social and web media we use is entirely free, we chip in to use unionized labor for photocopying, and have split the costs when we have shared a pizza. Myself and my colleagues who launched this effort are all strongly pro-union. We strongly support collective bargaining and are aware of the strong correlation between strong unions and positive student outcomes. We are concerned with the lack of participation in our union and believe we need to any change structures (e.g., voting procedures) that maintain it. (Incidentally, I met Riana at years ago at a Futures conference, a conference for young unionists—which I was technically too old to attend, but they let me. I think I met James through attendance at BTU meetings and discussions about unions on this very website.) We are all very passionately pro-union. We would love it if you could come to our next meeting (which we posted on Facebook). We are completely open and transparent.

    That said, BTUVotes is several main organizers and several hundred supporters. The over 1000 members who have signed on in our first two weeks are all individuals. As I previously said in an email to another member, I do not know all of them personally, but we all agree that our union matters and we want more access to participate at the most basic level. We are linked to various outside groups or none at all. We have networks great and small and reach out to them. What matters here is not how we are connected or who we are connected to in our personal lives, but what we want to see, which is our union representing equity and taking a stance that is built on what’s right. Voter equity is good for our union. And our sort of grassroots organizing is a healthy thing for unions, schools, and our democracy.

    As for other concerns about outside groups, I understand those concerns. I have no doubt that unions are under attack. However, I think it’s a shame because taken out of hand these concerns pollute and corrupt all other initiatives and often hold us back as a union from doing things that could move us forward—out of fear, fear of outsiders, of what has not yet happened, but what we need to NOT be afraid of is our own members. Instead of being afraid of outside groups influencing them, we need to invite our members in. This initiative does just that.

    In addition, there have always been people who have fought against increasing democracy by arguing that people will be influenced to vote the wrong way. In many cases the fear of outside groups influencing our members is that same fear. If we are going to be a truly democratic union we have to recognize that some of our members may not vote how you or I would want, but ultimately the diversity and interplay of ideas will strengthen us. And if our members do not understand what we stand for as a union and WHY, then we must do a better job communicating this. I’m really committed to showing our members that the BTU is relevant and a force for social good. It is. I think showing them we want to permanently remove impediments to voting—not maintain them—is a good first step. Like Al, I believe our members cannot be easily swayed. We need to respect them enough to expand voting access.

    P.S. Money, I believe the highest estimate we got was $1.25 per member per year, which is an increase from what we pay now, but we believe well worth it.

  6. Al Bird says:

    I am a teacher at Charlestown High School. Universal suffrage within a political organization refers to the right for all members to be eligible to vote and the ability for all members to vote and it should be not just the stated but also the real goal of all political bodies. The proposed BTU by-law change has this as its stated purpose. Because of the changing demographics of the BTU membership and the changing schedules of the locations where the members work many BTU members find it very difficult if not impossible to cast their vote in the biennial BTU election the way it is now structured. If we as an organization support and believe in universal suffrage then we must fix this problem,

    On the surface this proposed by-law change would seem to advance the objective of universal suffrage. But things are often not what they seem. Universal voting is often opposed by groups inside or outside of a political entity that feels the members of a subgroup that supports the political agenda they want to see implemented can benefit from the suppression of voters in other subgroups. There are various means to achieve this suppression and most of them have a valid legal basis. And most of them can be successful if done with forethought and enthusiasm. Many voter registration drives or get out the vote actions are directed only at those segments of the eligible voters who may/will support the candidate and/or positions of the group funding the action. Segmentation of the voting public is rule number two in politics. BTW rule number one is that a politician’s most important job is to do whatever s/he must do to get reelected.

    It appears to me and this thesis has not been countered by the supporters of this by-law change that the group proposing the change is supported by one or two outside non-public-education stakeholders who are opposed to the BTU and in my view are opposed to public schools. These groups support transitioning most if not all public school students into charter (i.e. private) schools.

    I ask myself why these groups would want to affect the way elections are run in the BTU. One concept comes to mind and that is segmentation. If they can identify segments of the BTU membership that support their anti-public-education pro-charter-school position and get them to cast votes by mail where they are not subject to electioneering as they would be if they voted in person at the BTU hall then they may be able to change the structure of the officers, staff and executive board in order to advance their agenda which is to emasculate the BTU. With most elections decided by margins of less that 100 votes out of a membership of about 8000 and enough resources available to blanket the identified segments with propaganda, I do not think it would be difficult to achieve that goal.

    Another issue that has been raised is the cost of this voting procedure. I have discussed this with an organizer from another union as well as with members of the group proposing the change and it seems to me that it will be more expensive than the present system but not outrageously so, and it if achieves the stated goal of substantially increasing the number of members who participate in the election then the expenditure will be well worth it.

    Now in spite of what I have written above I have not yet decided how I will cast my vote but I am leaning towards support for the by-law change. I like to think that the membership of the BTU can’t be that easily swayed by anti-union, anti-public-education political propaganda. And as a union we must increase the participation of the membership in all union activities if we are to survive as a viable labor organization. I suggest you study this issue, consider the salient points and make up your own mind about this very important issue. And remember that mo matter which way you intend to vote please come to the BTU Monthly Membership Meeting on the second Wednesday in June. Remember “United We Bargain, Divided We Beg!”

    • Jenn DiSarcina says:

      Al,
      Thanks so much for your thorough response…I had not once considered that those on the inside of the political entity of the BTU would believe that this is a cause started by a “pro-charter/anti-public” faction of its own members. Our membership is *solely* made up of public educators. Why would we vote against ourselves and the belief that public education should be the very best we can offer children?

      I certainly understand their fears, given this explanation (thanks again!)…but drawing the proverbial wagons tighter just makes it feel as if these same members do not want our voice. Education changes, and so should unions and their membership. We have gone through much radical change in education (most, hopefully in the name of improving learning and students’ lives)…and yet there has never been a by-law change? Even the Constitution needed to be amended. Laws change as times change…

      Is it so inconceivable that we can appreciate all that the BTU has done to protect teacher and student rights while also wanting to have a say in who represents us?

      As for the cost issue…personally, I believe if funds can be used for skywriters/plane messages and traveling trucks and public endorsements of elected officials…then the BTU owes it to its members to put two envelopes, two pieces of paper, and two stamps’ worth out to each member. The cost of counting ballots would remain the same.

      Trying to make a parallel back to my classroom…I imagine would be akin to saying that only my students who arrive on time (because they live close enough walk or their families drop them off) could participate in the day’s learning, or any choices made about what we do…those that ride the bus that come late because of transportation issues…oh well.

    • Ted Chambers says:

      Great comments Al. Very thoughtful. I think we need to be careful not to let outside, anti-union groups affect our elections. But I do not believe that this effort is being advanced by them. The folks who are leading this effort are all committed unionists who, I believe, want to increase democracy and participation in our union.

  7. Karen L. McCarthy says:

    I’m also a teacher at Brighton High School. Marc and Jenn, I loved reading your comments! Jenn, I would also love folks to post their rationale for opposing this let’s get a true discussion going! So far I have heard that creating a bylaw change is difficult. I believe we are a union that does things because they are right–we don’t avoid things because they are difficult. I also have heard that it won’t increase turn-out and that if teachers cared they would find a way to come. Both arguments are ridiculous and work to maintain a status quo which, frankly, isn’t working for individuals and isn’t working for us collectively if we want to a stronger more vibrant union. I support the mail-in ballot because it is the right thing to do. There is no reason why–even if he or she doesn’t choose to vote–that the teacher who has childcare responsibilities or cares for a sick parent, one with medical issues or whose economic situation requires him or her to work a second job, the teacher who chooses to coach a spring sport, or one who works far from the union hall or who doesn’t have the luxury of owning a car and so on should not have the same ability and ease to vote as any another member. This is a moral issue. Voter equity is good for our union. Permanently removing impediments to voting is a good first step in helping more members become involved, invested, and feeling positive toward our union.

  8. Jenn DiSarcina says:

    I am currently a math coach for K-8 and middle schools, and will be returning to the Eliot school as a Grade 5 teacher this September. I also am strongly for a mail in ballot…am would love to hear folks’ rationale for opposing it…I’m unclear how this could be anything but positive. Voting is from 9-6…which means that everyone except retirees are already at work teaching, given our students’ start times of 7:30, 8:20, and 9:25…and even if we are lucky enough for all busses to dismiss on time…an “early” schoolteacher, para, or nurse would be out at 2pm at the earliest…then to drive over to the Union and potentially disrupt a family/child pick up schedule…nevermind those of us who work at late schools, where the earliest we could leave would be 3:40-3:45…that puts BTU members in the throng of rush-hour traffic. I honestly see this as a respect issue to the members…the BTU works so hard during negotiations to protect our work rights and time to collaborate and focus on students…shouldn’t they also support our rights to be a more active participant in selecting our representatives while also supporting our rights and needs to take care of our personal and family lives outside of the job?

    Looking forward to learning and hearing about the rationale some may hold for opposing this change.

  9. Marc Seiden says:

    I am a teacher at Boston Green Academy. Thanks for this forum James. I strongly support the mail-in ballot initiative because our union can’t be as strong as it needs to be with such woefully low participation in elections. At present, I don’t think our officers are doing a bad job at all – it’s not a question of bad vs. good to me; it’s good vs. better. How can they (or anyone else) do a better job if we don’t have a union that is structured to support the free flow of ideas and collaborative problem solving? I believe a mail-in election structure will be a good start because it will push the process to be more about ideas and leadership vision than the current process does.

    • James says:

      I think that’s a really important frame to raise, Marc– that the mail-in ballot is a start to really open our union up to ideas about leadership, vision and collaborative problem solving. For me, it sends that clear message: ALL teachers voices should matter in our union. And it responds to so many of members out there who are wanting to feel welcome and able to participate in some kind of direct, democratic way.

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