The race for the helm of the New Haven Federation of Teachers is heating up as President Dave Cicarella faces challenges to his seat for the first time in 10 years.

On Oct. 12, New Haven educator Cameo Thorne announced her candidacy for union president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers. Thorne is currently the New Haven Public Schools Restorative Justice Program coordinator, a position which she has held for three years. Union Vice President Thomas Burns also decided to throw his hat in the ring on Oct. 17. Cicarella has been the union president since 2006.

“Teachers want change. We are the first line of defense for our students. And, yet, we are the last consideration in every district decision,” Thorne said at her campaign announcement on Oct. 12. “That is why I am running for union president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, to raise teachers’ voices and activate their advocacy so they can do the jobs they were hired to do — ensure students get an excellent and equitable education.”

The New Haven Federation of Teachers, or Local 933, has been a longtime advocate for teachers in the district. Its actions are largely dictated by an executive board which has maintained a working relationship with the New Haven Board of Education. In 2009, the Federation received accolades on the national level for negotiating a sweeping reform bill focused on contract policy in the district.

Recently, the union’s efforts have focused on the shake-ups occurring within the district and controversial Board of Education decisions.

In March 2018, Carol Birks began a three-year tenure as superintendent of schools at a time when the district was facing a nearly $20 million deficit. Three months later, the school system’s central office sent shock waves through the Elm City after sending layoff notices to over 1,000 employees. Although the letters were recalled a week later following widespread public outrage, 28 educators — including guidance counselors, librarians and teachers — were ultimately cut.

In addition to the layoffs, the board voted to close three district schools last May to remedy some of the district’s financial woes.

Teachers and parents alike have been critical of the Board’s decision-making in recent months, especially with regard to what they see as lack of transparency within the district.

Thorne’s platform advocates for increased grassroots advocacy among teachers. In a press release, the 2009 Elm City teacher of the year highlighted her desire to bring teachers’ voices to the forefront of conversations. She added that she wants to hear more teacher voices outside of union leadership, as well as increase their participation in policymaking.

Thorne’s vision for the future of the union is a sharp departure from their actions in the past. Under Cicarella’s leadership, the union has frequently participated in private negotiations with the Board of Education. In 2009, Cicarella received praise for his role negotiating the reforms with then Mayor John DeStefano which gave pay raises across the district but also allowed it to fire tenured teachers more easily. The reforms also gave the Board authority to evaluate teachers based on student test performance.

After staff cuts in August, Cicarella protested the hiring of multiple six-figure-salaried bilingual education supervisors, according to the New Haven Independent. He then tried to influence the Board, attempting to find positions for the teachers who were let go. Cicarella has been praised for his ability to negotiate behind the scenes, but both Thorne and Burns argue that this is not enough. Burns, who is campaigning on his experience with the union as its vice president, told the News that he has the skills to push the Board towards better reforms.

Still, Cicarella has defended his efforts to influence Birks and Board members.

“Showing up en masse to board meetings and aldermanic meetings, time after time after time, the way some groups do is less effective,” Cicarella said, according to the New Haven Independent. “At a certain point, no one is listening. Right or wrong, it becomes white noise.”

In an interview with the News, Burns lamented the recent layoffs of counselors and librarians. A former guidance counselor himself, he was upset with the lack of communication from the Board about the layoffs and the closing of the three schools last spring.

Burns said that while he respects Thorne and Cicarella, a vote for Cicarella would only maintain the “status quo,” and Thorne does not have experience in union work. He added that he joined the election to give teachers “another option.”

“We were seen as a leader in the country and in a very short time we are backsliding,” he told the News. “We are just going to be Hartford South, and I don’t want to be Hartford South. I want to be the light that leads the way.”

Burns hopes to take a more aggressive stance with the Board of Education. He wants to fight the budget deficit by ending contracts with testing companies like Pearson and hopes to communicate with Yale to learn how the district can manage its finances more effectively.

Teachers in the district are also vying for the position of executive vice president. Pat Delucia — the union’s current secretary and special education teacher, Kirsten Hoppes-McFadden — a middle school educator and Jennifer Wells-Jackson — the union’s vice president for middle schools — are all campaigning for the position.

Votes for the union election will be counted on Dec. 4.

Carolyn Sacco | carolyn.sacco@yale.edu .