After a year of negotiations and three weeks of sometimes-brutal internal debate, Newark public school teachers and other staff ratified a historic labor agreement yesterday that will reshape pay and many rules for New Jersey’s largest school district.
Nearly 2,900 members of the Newark Teachers Union voted in the day-long balloting at the NTU’s downtown offices, a nearly unprecedented turnout, and the vote was closer than many expected. The final tally was 1,767 in favor to 1,088 against, or roughly 62 percent to 38 percent.
Union leaders who had backed theappeared as much relieved as celebratory when the numbers were announced, citing both the accomplishment of the pact but also the sizable numbers not on board.
Joseph Del Grosso, the NTU’s longtime president, said the agreement is only the first step in developing a workable system to fulfill it. That includes new teacher and staff evaluations and a program for performance bonuses to the most exemplary members, the controversial centerpiece of the deal.
“It’s a great vote, but it’s going to take a lot of work to put this together, that’s the tough part,” Del Grosso said.
Looking tired from a long day in which voting started at 6:30 a.m., Del Grosso said he didn’t entirely blame a third of his voting membership for casting “no” votes.
“It’s a difficult contract; it’s a leap of faith, it really is,” he said. “They took the leap, which I am grateful for. But we now have to show the members how it will work.”
The plaudits came in from elsewhere, including Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, who had staked much of her own standing on final passage of the deal.
"Congratulations to the teachers, parent coordinators, teacher's aides, child study teams, and paraprofessionals who will benefit from the success of this contract, and especially to the students and families of Newark,” she said in a statement released by her office.
“As a lifelong educator, I am thrilled for our teachers here in Newark and for the teaching profession as a whole,” she said.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union for the NTU, issued her own press release within minutes of the final vote. Weingarten, one of the country’s preeminent labor leaders, had participated in the final negotiations.
“This contract demonstrates the willingness of Newark’s teachers and the school district to find innovative ways to ensure that quality and experience are recognized and rewarded, making it a full, professional compensation system,” Weingarten said.
“When you put all this together, you come out with a unique, innovative plan that will help boost teaching and learning and will strengthen the teaching profession,” her statement said. “Newark can now be added to the growing list of districts nationwide that are using collective bargaining as vehicles for education reform.”
The five-year contract has a number of highlights beyond just the performance bonuses, which would bestow an extra $5,000 to those gaining the highest evaluation ratings. They would gain an additional $5,000 on top of that if they work in a low-performing school, and another $2,500 for working in a high-need field like science and math.
In addition, it includes an average pay raise of close to 13 percent over the next three years, one of the higher increases in the state. At the same time, the union would gain a say in those evaluations, with teachers part of the actual evaluation teams, and checks and balances for monitoring the results and providing a process for appeals.
But the membership’s misgivings were evident in interviews with nearly a dozen teachers and other staff as they left the union hall after voting in the late afternoon, many with their children in tow.
Most of those willing to talk said they voted in favor of the deal, but some with concerns over a number of uncertainties still to be resolved with the development of the evaluation system and the peer-review process.
And most concurred it was likely the best deal they were going to get in the state-run district with Gov. Chris Christie at the helm.
“It really was a no-win for us,” said a kindergarten teacher with 20 years in the district who asked not to be identified. “We either turn it down and start over with a governor who won’t hear anything else from us. Or we vote 'yes,' and we take whatever they give us.”
“At least we now have something on the table, like it or not,” she said.
Others weren’t so hesitant in their support, including Rosemary Taylor, a psychologist at the McKinley Elementary School and 25-year veteran of the district. She said the performance pay was worth attempting, noting that the extra money could prove a powerful incentive.
“I think it is something that should be tried,” she said. “I think people are worried about who will be judging them, will they be judged fairly. I just trust enough to say let’s try it. Nothing is set in cement.”
And still others said after two years without a contract or any raises, it was time to get what they could. Teachers with advanced degrees could opt to remain on a standard salary track that would not have the performance pay, with 30 days to decide.
“We have been without a contract for so long,” said Leonie Cammock, a fourth grade teacher at the Hawthorne Avenue Elementary School. “For those like us who went back to school and have student loans to pay, we have an added burden and what we have can stretch so far.”
A dissident faction of the NTU had emerged out of the protracted negotiations, openly challenging Del Grosso and the union’s leadership for what they said was selling out their members. Called the Newark Education Workers Caucus, the group has become an ever-vocal presence in public meetings, contending that the deal will only split the union at a time when Anderson is closing and consolidating schools.
Several of its leaders were on hand for much of the balloting yesterday, acting as unofficial poll watchers.
“If we had a multimillion national organization behind us [the national AFT], we would have had a much better outcome,” said Brandon Rippey, a history and sociology teacher at Science Park High School. “They spent a lot of money to convince their members.”
“But the members are scared, fearful, ambivalent,” he said. “I think ambivalent is the best word. They had no confidence in the leadership to do anything better. This is the best we could get.”