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Teachers Union Looks to Go on Offense

At annual NJEA conference, the main focus is on how to fight back politically.

The name of the summer workshop spoke volumes about the sense inside the New Jersey Education Association these days: “In Enemy Territory -- Defending Your Rights in a Hostile Political Climate.”

Such is life for the state’s largest teachers union going into the new school year, as district spending is trimmed, labor contracts are shrunk, and a new governor jabs at the union nearly every chance he can get.

So as nearly 2,000 of its local and state leaders met this week for the NJEA’s annual summer leadership conference in East Brunswick, it was no wonder that a session on how to fight back politically was a big draw.

“We usually have to beg people people to come to do the politics stuff,” said Wayne Dibofsky, a NJEA lobbyist, scanning a list of 150 registrants. “One year, we offered scholarships. Not this year, though. No, not this year.”

Considering Contracts

It’s not just politics that the union has to worry about, and over the course of the week, the NJEA has held workshops for everything from grievance processing to family involvement training to, of course, collective bargaining.

The timing of the last is good, as the New Jersey School Boards Association yesterday released its latest survey of teacher contract settlements, which showed a trend toward the lowest average salary increases since the group started tracking 30 years ago.

Since January, 75 contracts settled for the coming school year have averaged 2.03 percent increases, the association said, and those settled since April averaged 1.58 percent. Last year, the average increase was 4.31 percent.

Among the settled agreements, 24 of the new contracts have included full or partial salary freezes with their teachers. Another 18 districts reopened contracts to negotiate freezes, the association said.

Advancing New Ideas

This all comes at a tenuous time for the 200,000-member teachers union, as it builds a political strategy to combat not only Gov. Chris Christie’s broadsides, but also a broader agenda of school reforms that a few years ago would have been an anathema to the union.

Expansion of charter schools, changes to teacher tenure, and new systems of merit pay are just some of the fall’s expected topics of conversation, especially if New Jersey is chosen among the winners of federal Race to the Top grants.

NJEA leaders said they are working not only to respond, but also to put forward some ideas of their own.

It may start as soon as next week, when the Senate takes up a measure that would allow Rutgers University to be an authorizer of charter schools, potentially opening the way for quicker approvals and more schools.

It’s a move backed by Christie and his education commissioner, Bret Schundler, who will also scheduled to speak at the education committee hearing on Monday.

“With all these bills, instead of just saying ‘no,’ we have to ask what can we do to make them better,” Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s top lobbyist, said yesterday. “What can we propose on our own that will help change the conversation?”

Schnitzer said the NJEA is working on several tracks, including its own strategies for what it calls “priority schools” that are chronically under-performing and “experienced teacher corps” to work in struggling schools.

It has a plan for tenure reform, too, that Schnitzer said is “still under wraps,” but that puts a big focus on improving the teacher evaluation system.

Exerting Influence

And that doesn’t count all the minutia that went into the political workshop held this week, much of it focused on how to address local concerns as well as statewide ones.

Each participant was handed an inch-thick binder on how to target voters and even predict voter turnout, no small thing in school elections where the average turnout rate is in the teens.

They heard from members of the media, community organizers, and some of the legislators they hope to influence, including Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) and U.S Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), both running for reelection.

(Full disclosure: The author of this article spoke on one of the panels.)

Among the attendees was Steve Santucci, a history teacher from Mendham, who said the sessions are important for the local leaders to come together and help hone the message for these challenging times. And he said this year’s certainly appeared the most crowded yet.

“It gets us to connect with the other unions out there,” he said, “and to remind us that we’re not all islands in this.”

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