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Hottest Topics in State Education Shaping Newark Teachers Contract

High-level talks focusing on issues like teacher evaluation and merit pay.

The future of superintendent Cami Anderson’s and the Christie administration’s hopes for Newark public schools may rest on a document that has been under negotiation for the past nine months: the Newark teachers contract.

The agreement will not only define pay and benefits for Newark’s 3,300 teachers -- the usual concerns -- but also will likely contain a host of new issues as to how individual teachers are evaluated, compensated, and assigned.

Both sides appear close by most accounts, with Anderson and state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf directly involved in talks with the Newark Teachers Union, discussions that have included Randi Weingarten, the president of the NTU’s parent, the American Federation of Teachers.

A final pact would still need to be approved by the NTU’s membership and possibly Gov. Chris Christie, and few at the table are willing to divulge many of the details after the last discussions on Friday.

But an outline is emerging, and there are certainly a few things to watch for:

Pay for Performance

Any contract is likely to include some provisions that teacher salaries will be based to some degree on how well they are rated, the first such large-scale pay-for-performance system in the state and potentially one of the higher-profile ones in the country.

Joseph Del Grosso, the NTU’s president, said yesterday that the talks at this point have included provisions that would award bonuses to exemplary teachers and also create a separate salary guide that would base salary bumps on teachers' ratings.

Those new proposals would be mandatory for incoming teachers and optional for those currently in the system, Del Grosso said, and would supplant the standard guides that center on the experience and academic credentials of a teacher, a huge departure for any district, let alone the state’s largest.

Teacher Evaluation

Central to any agreement to pay teachers more for performance will be how they are evaluated, with the state as a whole grappling with the new tenure reform law.

One of the first pilots in the state’s effort, Newark is a little further along with its evaluation system than most, and under the law, not much of it can be dictated by the collective bargaining agreement anyway. But one piece that Del Grosso said he is pressing for is a peer review provision that would include teachers in the evaluations, as well as in the oversight of the evaluations.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant union, has been reluctant to have its members evaluating their peers, but the AFT and Del Grosso in particular have said they see that vital to keeping some checks on the system.

“We have to be involved in that, be it peer reviewers or peer evaluators,” Del Grosso said. “We are trying to make this as fair as possible.”

The Role of Outside Foundations

Newark schools have been placed into the national spotlight with the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and how teachers are compensated may prove the gift’s biggest impact to date.

Del Grosso said his union is opposed to using taxpayers’ money to pay the extra bonuses. The option is funding from outside foundation, led by the Zuckerberg’s Foundation for Newark’s Future.

No precise numbers have been disclosed, but the head of the foundation has said that it also could play a part in funding teacher buyouts, with Anderson saying that there may be more than 600 excess teachers in the district. The foundation is also expected to be a big contributor to the charter school movement in the city.

Back pay

Newark teachers are entering their third year without a contract, so any successful pact will need to deal with retroactive pay.

The union and district have been locked in a legal dispute over the failure to even pay so-called step increases based on experience in the past two years, which are estimated to come to about $30 million.

The system-wide raises beyond the step increases could cost at least that much, and the size of that retroactive package could help determine whether the rank and file will go for the rest of the deal.

And Then There Are All the Other Details

In a contract that spanned nearly 100 pages the last go-round, there are a number of other key issues that also need to be resolved, not the least of which is how long the agreement will remain in effect. At the moment, Del Grosso said the discussion involves a five-year contract , two years of which would be retroactive.

In addition, separate agreements are likely to be struck for the district’s half-dozen highest-priority, lowest-performing schools, which are expected to see longer school days and additional pay for teachers working those hours.

Some wild cards exist, with the stakes clear in the ongoing teachers strike in Chicago and the rancorous agreement reached in Boston. Those contract talks hinged on some of the same issues of teacher evaluation and empowerment. Strikes are illegal in New Jersey, although that doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

Still, the Newark talks have so far shown none of those tensions. The question now is more about when an agreement will be announced, not if.

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