Flipping the board in Brentwood: Kevin Coyne and his members transformed their local into a political powerhouse

In May 2023, local union president and sixth-grade support specialist Kevin Coyne and the 1,500 members of the Brentwood Teachers Association on Long Island proved just what teachers and school staff can do when they see their students getting shortchanged: They achieved a school board composed entirely of pro-public school, pro-teacher allies. It was the culmination of a nearly three-year process to wrest control from a board president and leadership that had undermined educators and refused to invest in Brentwood schools. 

Take a Look at Teaching group with banner
The union and district now partner for a flourishing “grow your own” teacher recruitment program.

Coyne, a 13-year local president, veteran sixth-grade support specialist and tireless organizer, led the transformation. “We started small and took it step by step,” he says. In the 2020-21 school year when a vacancy arose on the school board, former BTA executive board member Julia Burgos was appointed. Burgos joined two already sympathetic board members, Cynthia Ciferri and Eileen Felix. “With those three allies, we had a seat at the table to raise vital issues,” says Coyne, noting that you can’t underestimate the importance of getting a foot in the door.

In May 2022, Coyne mobilized his members and the community to elect two more public education allies, special education teacher Maria Malave and community activist Hassan Ahmed, forming a five-seat board majority. Then, in May 2023, Coyne recruited two more candidates who shared their values, and the union mobilized to elect them: Brandon Garcia, an Air Force veteran and former student body representative to the board, and retired Brentwood teacher and union building representative Eileen Harman.

The 2023 election was a landslide win for a board that now includes three former BTA union reps and one BTA executive board member—and represents a firm commitment to schools where teachers want to teach and students can learn at their best. Original ally Eileen Felix became board president. A total flip was complete.

To the former board, ‘We were pigs at the public trough.’

Victory took diligent political mobilization: recruiting candidates, door-knocking and phone-banking, internal mobilization and all-out community engagement. It also took Coyne weathering a district attempt to fire him—a transparent unionbusting ploy on a frivolous charge that cost taxpayers, Coyne estimates, $50,000 in district lawyer fees. “It was chilling,” Coyne admits. But not taking on the incumbent board leadership was never a question for him. 

“This board had changed the narrative around who teachers were. To the [now former] board president, we weren’t those kind people who fed 300 families at Thanksgiving. We were the people who came home early from work. We were pigs at the public trough.”

Worse, students weren’t getting what they needed to recover and thrive after a pandemic that hit hard in this diverse community (41 percent of Brentwood’s population was born outside the United States). One of the largest suburban school districts in New York, Brentwood is surrounded by wealthy districts, but it lies along the Long Island Expressway, and its students are high-need. Eighty-eight percent of the 18,000 students rely on free and reduced-price lunch. 

BTA President Kevin Coyne
Brentwood Teachers Association President Kevin Coyne

“Brentwood is not the Hamptons,” Coyne notes. “Immigration is on our doorstep. We need to help these students the best we can. We enroll 16-year-old students whose last time in the classroom was in kindergarten. In their country of origin, some have seen their fathers and brothers murdered on their doorsteps due to gang violence—heavy stuff we weren’t equipped to handle. With budget cuts, we had guidance counselors with 450-1 caseloads. We were fighting from behind every day.”

Local remedies weren’t being deployed. “The board was squirreling money away in a fiscal reserve fund, destroying programs, eliminating math and reading specialists and school dean positions. All when students desperately needed services and staff. Salaries became stagnant. They laid off 137 teachers. It was beyond devasting for district morale.”

The road to victory begins at home

When Coyne took over as local president 13 years ago, he followed powerhouse Joe Hogan, a skilled negotiator and political advocate. But the union had been almost too successful in servicing its members, rather than calling on them to act. Coyne knew that before they could transform the board, they had to transform themselves, by shoring up member engagement and reinforcing community relationships. A vital impetus emerged: the union-busting June 2018 Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME.

Coyne says, “It seems odd to say, but our union benefited from the Janus case. Here in New York, what Janus did was to force us to go back to our roots. As scary as it was, we did some of our best union work around Janus. We got to know our members again.” 

The local launched an intensive member sign-up campaign well in advance of the court’s decision. “We decided our 10-to-1 member-to-building-rep structure was our bedrock. We focused on our members having face-to-face contact and conversations with the union.”

Building reps did numerous in-person surveys. “We asked everything from, ‘What’s your birthday?’ to ‘What do you love and despise about unions, and ours in particular?’ The reps had members fill out answers on cards and deliver them back to the union in person, building our capacity in listening and engagement.” 

The union held a “Value of the Union” bulletin board contest, with the winning school receiving a bagel breakfast or happy hour certificate. They launched an ongoing “Give One Day to Your Union” campaign, with T-shirts, mugs and other swag. “It hinges on peer congeniality,” Coyne says. “A member will say to themselves, ‘Yes, I can knock doors for a morning with three other teachers and then go to lunch with my colleagues.’” Today, 1,425 of the BTA’s 1,500 members are enrolled in New York State United Teachers’ Vote COPE program, and the BTA ranks in the top five locals in NYSUT’s 1,200 locals, in terms of both dollar amount contributed and COPE participant level.

The local laser-focused on one-on-one organizing. “This is a relationship-based business,” says Coyne. “If we’re not going to shake hands and meet people where they’re at, have those difficult conversations, then we’re never going to win the change we seek.” It worked: “Seventy-two hours after Janus came down, we had 100 percent membership.”

That perfect score nearly faltered. “One member was personally pissed at me. He hadn’t signed. So I knocked on this guy’s door. He was actually ready to sign, he just wanted that face-to-face conversation. We have to meet our angry members face-to-face. You have to have the courage as a leader to be in a room with people who disagree with you.” 

Engaging the community: ‘It has to be a two-way street.’

With its internal structures strong, the local turned to enhancing its community engagement, from labor solidarity to new community groups. In 2016, when Verizon workers on Long Island went on strike, the BTA was on the picket lines and showed up with groceries for strikers’ families. When other district locals—such as Teamsters Local 237 for buildings and grounds and security staff, and AFSCME-affiliated CSEA for paraprofessionals—need support, the BTA stands with them. The BTA now has agreements with other area unions to jointly endorse school board candidates. When child advocates, community groups and New York’s labor movement need a presence at the Legislature, BTA members head for Albany. 

“People know: If you’re in need, Brentwood will send you a bus of 50 people. It’s about being human, helping each other. That human touch is the foundation of labor.” It’s a two-way street, Coyne emphasizes. “You can’t go to community groups hat in hand. You have to have a history of being there for them.” 

That history mattered when Coyne started recruiting candidates. “In the 2022 election, I wanted 32-year special education teacher Maria Malave to run. She was involved in the soccer community and had great relationships with parents. I knocked on her door. She said, ‘Are you crazy? I’m retiring in June.’ By Thanksgiving she was on board.” 

When Coyne recruited community activist Hassan Ahmed to run, the BTA’s history of supporting students from the Muslim community helped. The union had persuaded the district to add the Eid al-Fitr holiday to the calendar. It had set up prayer rooms in schools during Ramadan. It is working to add halal options to the school lunch menu. And Coyne showed up in person, attending Ahmed’s mosque multiple times. 

With Malave and Ahmed in, Coyne set his sights on 2023, recruiting former student body rep Brandon Garcia, an Air Force veteran now serving in the New York Air National Guard. “That helped engage the youth vote and the VFWs.” Retired Brentwood teacher and union rep Eileen Harman also stepped forward to run. Harman’s brother and two nephews work on the district’s buildings and grounds staff, a link that engaged support from Teamsters Local 237, which represents buildings and grounds staff in Brentwood. If the BTA could win those two seats, they would finally have a board that was unified on addressing the needs of students and the challenges schools faced. But it would take some doing.

“NYSUT could see what we were trying to do in Brentwood, and they all-out supported us,” says Coyne. The state federation helped the local develop a campaign of phone calls, canvassing, newspaper ads and community newsletters. More than 700 BTA volunteers made nearly 4,500 phone calls and knocked on nearly 2,000 doors. 

The BTA-endorsed candidates won by more than 300 votes—an unheard-of margin in Brentwood, where in the past candidates have won by five or 10 votes. Now, Coyne says, the new board and the union are working to offer services and opportunities for students “that we once only dreamed about.” 

Elections matter, from cosmetology to contracts

Things have changed in Brentwood these days. Money for schools, for one thing. The district had seen a huge influx in funding due to President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, and the restoration last year of full funding for state Foundation Aid (transformative for high-need districts like Brentwood). But it took a school board willing to invest in students to translate these new funds into improvements on the ground. Now it’s happening. 

Coyne is most proud of the addition of a ninth period to the former eight-period school day. 

“With state-mandated courses and only eight periods, if a bilingual student wanted to take an auto shop class, there wasn’t time in the day. Many didn’t even get a lunch period.” 

With the new nine-period day, kids can now access electives, from dance to AP courses. The district is working with the Eastern Suffolk BOCES (a cooperative of 51 Long Island school districts) to offer a cosmetology program. It’s partnering with Suffolk County Community College to allow high school students to dual-enroll and earn college credits. The local and district are exploring more career and technical education programs, including one around the area’s emerging wind farm industry. “Not all kids want to be college kids,” Coyne notes. “Some want to build wind turbines. That’s what labor is all about, opening up those opportunities.” 

He adds, “Never did I think we’d be able to offer these things.” He notes that the district works to make electives available to all students, from new migrant students with a specific vocational interest, to special education students who can now take school dance classes.

To address an urgent teacher shortage, the local negotiated and unanimously ratified a five-year contract last June, with substantial raises for teachers and first-time stipends for club advisers and coaches. Again, elections matter. “The new board actually believes in their teachers, not in attacking teachers and the unions they belong to. They realized that this contract will attract and retain high-quality candidates. We now have some of the most competitive salaries of any Long Island school district,” says Coyne. 

The BTA used grant money provided by the AFT and NYSUT to fund their Take a Look at Teaching program, a grow-your-own program that encourages Brentwood students to enter the teaching profession. 

“We have a firm belief in diversity in our workforce. We want kids to have people who look and sound like them in the classroom,” says Coyne. “Thanks to the nine-period day, we were able to develop Teaching I and II electives.” Now recent grads and alumni are coming back to teach in Brentwood, including some of Coyne’s former students. 

Coyne is proud when he sees Brentwood’s Take a Look at Teaching students march in the local St. Patrick’s Day parade in their green TLT sweatshirts. He’s proud the graduation rate in Brentwood has risen to 84 percent and an increasing number of students are getting a free ride to Ivy League schools. And he’s proud that morale is the best he’s seen in 27 years teaching in Brentwood. The union is now involved in every major decision in the district. “Be careful what you wish for,” he laughs. “We are in the mix.”

But Coyne—who comes from a union family and whose wife is a fellow union teacher, knows organizing never stops. This May, the three original BTA-supportive board members, Eileen Felix, Julia Burgos and Cynthia Ciferri, are up for re-election. The BTA will be there for them once again—and will be mobilizing its members around the importance of voting for the current national presidential administration again. Coyne plans to get out every vote in both the local and national elections. 

“I see the national election as being about the value of the union for you and your family. If you are happy with your union contract, with your union rights, there is only one administration on this ticket who will protect and respect your union rights and fight for them. If we want to keep the progress we’ve made, we know that the current administration will fight for the union values we hold dear and support the work our members do every day.”

Neither holding the school board nor holding on to the country’s current progress will be easy. So Coyne and his activists will keep walking buildings and neighborhoods. “I go through a lot of shoes,” Coyne says ruefully. What keeps them strong? He says it’s the new spirit of cooperation in Brentwood among the board, educators and the community. “It’s like a rudder steering a ship. The rudder is big enough for all of us to have a hand on it. We’re navigating the winds to help our kids. They are our North Star.”