Courtesy of Dave Cicarella and Leslie Blatteau

Dave Cicarella, the 15-year incumbent president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, will face a challenger in this December’s election.

The challenge comes from Leslie Blatteau, a social studies teacher at Metropolitan Business Academy, who announced her campaign last week at Bear’s Smokehouse Barbecue in Fair Haven. Blatteau joins the “Fighting for Our Future” slate of candidates, a group of incumbent and newcomer teacher candidates looking to take charge of the union’s hierarchy. The group has championed itself as an advocate for educators who would prioritize increased teacher engagement and organizational transparency.  

Cicarella is running for a sixth three-year term and also intends to do so on a slate, but the list of candidates on that slate is not yet finalized, he told the News. Cicarella has contested and won the presidency three times since 2018, after legal challenges led to two court-mandated special elections.

“Now is the time when there are a lot of shifts happening locally, statewide, nationally, obviously, and I wanted to put my expertise to use,” Blatteau said. “To see if we could continue this work and really look into the future and build an even stronger union.”

‘New life and energy’: Blatteau emphasizes relationships, engagement

If elected, Blatteau said she would continue her long-standing fights against school privatization, budget cuts and an overreliance on “high-stakes testing” — exams that carry a high impact on students’ futures, affecting major steps such as promotion to the next grade level or graduation. 

Blatteau said that she does not have the administrative experience that her opponent has but stressed her other strengths: her ability to build strong relationships with district families, her skill for sourcing concerns and her familiarity with the everyday functioning of schools.

She hopes to “breathe new life and energy” into the union’s long-dormant labor, community action, and legislative committees, among others. Restarting these committees, she said, is meant to engage more NHFT members in the day-to-day activities of the union.

The union, according to Cicarella, puts out a call for committee sign-ups every year, and receives little response. He added that he does not blame teachers for lack of participation on committees. Busyness, he said, is a “product of 21st-century life for teachers.”

Still, Blatteau stressed the need to create more opportunities to directly listen to teachers and educators. To do so, she plans to create focus groups designed specifically for that purpose.

“I think we can do more to collaborate with the community to engage on more political issues, whether it be related to climate justice education to Black Lives Matter at school,” Blatteau said. “So let’s be proactive and come stronger on these issues, so the community knows we stand with them.”

Cicarella leans on experience, pandemic response record

“I think the work is important,” Cicarella said about his decision to run for a sixth term. “I think I’m still effective at it. And I think now more than ever, this would be a bad time to change.”

In an interview with the News, Cicarella touted his ability to lead teachers amid the most uncertain points of the NHFT during the pandemic. It was in part due to the union, he said, that schools were equipped with the air filter infrastructure and personal protective equipment necessary to reopen schools safely. Cicarella said that his decade-plus of experience helped make those changes possible. An understanding of stakeholders and district operations made him a strong collaborator, he said.

Cicarella also pushed back on criticisms about the union’s lack of transparency.

“We can’t be any more transparent,” Cicarella said. “Everything done at the executive board is voted on, minutes are posted, we put [out] communication.”

According to Cicarella, the union has streamlined its communication with members since he took office. In the past, he said, the union released about five lengthy newsletters a year, occasionally with outdated information. Now, he said, union officials focus on providing shorter, more frequent updates of the most pressing issues, with multiple per month.

In response to criticism from Blatteau’s slate that NHFT is isolated from the broader currents of New Haven’s labor movements, Cicarella pointed to NHFT’s partnerships with other New Haven unions. Over the last two years, Cicarella said, the teachers union has worked with local police, fire and public works unions to secure an agreement that gave members more choices for their individual retirement account and health savings account contributions.

The American Federation of Teachers was founded in 1916 in Chicago.

CHRISTIAN ROBLES
Christian Robles covers education & youth services. He is a sophomore in Davenport College studying Political Science and Economics.
PIA BALDWIN EDWARDS