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Renegotiating the Newark School System

Now that cameras are no longer trained on the key players, the hard business of negotiating the future of education in Newark begins.

As written now, the Newark Teachers Union contract is 93 pages long. Its table of contents alone is almost a dozen pages.

The contract not only lays out the pay for teachers at each year of service and the minimum length of their school day and year, but also the maximum length of monthly faculty meetings (50 minutes) and the pay for “volunteer” cafeteria or playground duties ($2,000 a year).

It is an arcane document like this that could determine success or failure in Gov. Chris Christie’s and Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s bold efforts to remake Newark schools, with the help of a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The two leaders said as much in announcing their plans to great fanfare this weekend, promising the first step would be to start a community conversation that includes looking hard at the rules dictating how Newark teachers do their jobs.

“How do you empower teachers, how do you hold teachers accountable, do you look at things like merit pay, do you have situations where you have great teachers last hired who are the first fired?” Booker said.

“What does our teacher contract look like right now, what does it require of our teachers, how does it hold them accountable?” the mayor continued. “What are other cities from New Haven to Washington, D.C., doing, who have innovative arrangements with their teachers? Let’s let Newarkers see what the possibilities are.”

And once that’s determined, that’s where the true debates will likely take place.

Recrafting the Contracts

“If you can’t change the contracts, it will be impossible to do the kinds of things that leaders -- including union leaders -- want to be doing,” said Joe Williams, executive director of the Manhattan-based Democrats for Education Reform and longtime observer of teacher labor issues.

It’s not even just what the contracts say, he said, but also sometimes the omissions that are left to arbitrators to decide.

“Who works in summer schools, how professional development is determined, there was even a case in San Diego to who speaks last in faculty meetings,” Williams said. “All these are little things, but they make a big difference when you want to dig deep and turn things around.”

Indeed, there is much to be learned from the ninety-three-page “master contract” that now dictates the rules for Newark’s nearly 4,000 teachers. It includes some of the stultifying edicts that critics say block improvement, as well more progressive ideas that both Booker and Christie have hinted support for.

NTU Not NJEA

It’s important to note that this is the Newark Teachers Union, an arm of the American Federation of Teachers and quite separate and apart in both philosophy and governance from the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) that has become Christie’s favorite political target.

The NTU actually supported the Christie administration’s failed Race to the Top application, which included many of his boldest reforms, a point sometimes lost in Christie’s near-open warfare with the NJEA over the application.

“We’re willing to open the dialogue and do what needs to be done,” said Joseph DelGrosso, the NTU’s president of the past 15 years. “I’m not willing to give up on unionism, but we’re willing to have management meet us half-way.”

There would be plenty of room for negotiation, since the two sides are already at the table seeking a deal on a new contract to replace the existing one-year deal that expired June 30.

Merit-Based Pay?

In the highest-profile item, there’s a salary guide in place that says nothing about basing teachers pay on performance, a favorite of Christie’s and Booker’s that they will surely insist be included.

Now, pay is strictly determined by years of service and academic degree, ranging from a starting salary of $50,000 for a teacher with a bachelors degree to $103,000 for a 30-year teacher with a PhD.

But the guide gives its biggest raises with little clear reasoning. A teacher with a masters degree in her 11th year at $61,000 makes $30,000 less than the same teacher in her 14th year at $90,000. Sick pay also takes a jump in later years, with 15 days bumped up to 25.

When it comes to evaluations, the contract is more about due process for teachers than about their empowerment, with broad rules on how evaluations are to be conducted but much of the details left to the administration.

Under Section 8, Paragraph B: “Teachers shall be rated Distinguished, Proficient, Basic or Unsatisfactory. If rated Unsatisfactory, it is the obligation of the supervisor to make specific recommendations for improvement and provide assistance to the teacher. After a reasonable time, the supervisor shall re-evaluate the teacher.”

But in a partnership that was in part forged and funded by the NTU, the district two years ago also enlisted Seton Hall University to help create a Teacher Assistance Program for those teachers deemed ‘unsatisfactory,” with close to 150 teachers so far enlisted.

The contract reads: “Throughout the length of the program, teachers will be encouraged to be self-evaluative, reflective and corrective. This intensive program is an attempt to bring the marginal teacher to a satisfactory level of performance.”

So far, the program has received good early reviews from both the district and union. "Some of those teachers left or there were tenure charges eventually filed, but there’s 100 teachers who could be saved," Del Grosso said.

Still, these are a far cry from some of the deals that Booker alluded to in New Haven, CT, and Washington, D.C.

Washington and New Haven

New Haven teachers in the last year signed a pact that allowed for school-wide merit pay based in part on student achievement levels in a school. It also allows for the suspension of work rules with the faculty’s assent, and the conversion of public schools to charter schools.

More notable is the 112-page deal just ratified this summer between Washington’s superintendent, Michelle Rhee, and her teachers union, which allows for $20,000-$30,000 boosts in pay based on student performance and other factors. Those bonuses in the early years would be funded through outside foundations, not terribly different from what Zuckerberg has launched for Newark.

Washington’s new contract also allows principals to use teacher evaluations in determining who would go in staff reductions or changes, with no guarantee of jobs in other schools for displaced workers.

Crossing the Line

Those are some of the lines that DelGrosso has so far said he was reluctant to cross, but also did not rule out. Any changes in tenure or seniority requirements, he said, would need to be statewide decisions, not ones unique to Newark.

The Newark union leader likes to point to the labor contract signed in Toledo, OH, where teachers were enlisted in the evaluation process as peer reviewers.

“We need to have input, and also in how they are hired in the first place,” he said. “Management can’t tell us everything. They’re not the practicioners.”

Williams said these issues will likely not all be settled at once.

“In trying what they are trying to do in Newark and bring wholesale change, it will take significant negotiation,” he said. “There will be a lot of issues in play, and you’ll be lucky if you get any of them.”

“These contracts are years, if not decades, of agreements that we’ve made,” Williams said. “To undo them is going to cost.”

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