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In Failed Jersey City RTTT Application, a Glimpse of Tensions Between Teachers and Administrators

For head of teachers union, Race to the Top grant read more like a contract than an application.

The Friday before Sandy hit, Jersey City Educational Association head Ronald Greco was trying to decide whether to sign off on the district’s application for the new Race to the Top (RTTT) grants.

Greco was concerned about many of the things the $40 million application asked for, such as new administrative positions, longer school days, and financial incentives for schools and teachers.

Ultimately, he refused to sign, posting his rationale on the union’s website two days after the grant’s Sandy-extended deadline of November 9.

“The grant would be our new contract. It has spelled out extended day, extended week, and extended year,” he wrote. “These are negotiable items. Now you know why I couldn’t sign.”

Greco’s online letter was his first big gesture on the job. This summer, the former Lincoln High School history teacher and union vice-president replaced longtime head Tom Favia as the leader of the JCEA, the state’s second-largest teachers union and the largest New Jersey Education Association local.

Greco’s refusal may offer insight as to how contract negotiations between teachers and the administration might proceed in other districts, after the landmark Newark Teachers Union agreement this fall. The NTU OK'd key terms sought by the state, chiefly a two-tiered salary system based on performance pay.

Critics of the deal called the NTU a pushover. But Greco’s letter signaled Jersey City schoolteachers might not be so accommodating to state demands.

Greco takes the helm of the union at a key juncture in the leadership of the city’s 3,000-plus public school teachers. Contract negotiations start this month with a new superintendent and a newly empowered board of education, which for the first time in two decades was able itself to pick a chief administrator for the district’s 28,000 students.

The negotiations will play out against the backdrop of an intense mayoral campaign between incumbent Jerramiah Healy, who has teacher union support, and city councilman Steven Fulop, who is a supporter of charter schools and tenure reform.

Merit pay -- incentives for teachers and schools that bring up student test scores -- looms over the upcoming negotiations in Jersey City. The RTTT grant provided a window into what may be at stake. Of particular interest to the JCEA was the grant’s mention of longer days and financial incentives, the attention-grabbing features of the recently signed contract between the NTU and the state-run Newark public school district. In his online letter, Greco wrote, “They wanted the JCEA to agree to the concept of merit pay before we even begin negotiations.”

The JCEA is not known for shirking a fight.

While Greco speaks kindly of Jersey City Public Schools Superintendent Marcia Lyles, he is also comfortable with fiery rhetoric about the ills of standardization and the “corporate model” of education --which many local community leaders and educators fear is bearing down on them from Trenton. Under Favia’s leadership, the union struck for five days in 1998 over contract disputes concerning teacher evaluation and extending the workday.

Those same issues are likely to be central to the coming round of negotiations. The statewide -- and national -- momentum toward education reform is bringing with it new teacher evaluation systems based in part on student test scores, as well as teacher tenure reform.

Actual negotiations between Jersey City’s six school unions and the school district begin this month, with contracts expiring at some point before the end of 2013. The current contract, which was signed well past its predecessor had run out and led to contentious raises of between 4 percent and 2 percent over four years, expires August 31.

Greco’s counterpart on the district side is even newer in her position. Superintendent Lyles started in September, as the first superintendent hired by a locally elected board in Jersey City since 1989 -- when the district was under state control.

In 2007, the district regained control of governance and personnel, so the board conducted a superintendent search independent of the state Department of Education. (Local activists have alleged state interference in the process, through Commissioner Cerf’s meetings with some board members and city councilman Fulop.) A former deputy chancellor in New York City, Lyles was the super for a medium-sized Delaware school district and is a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, which Commissioner Cerf also attended.

Lyles says that the district RTTT grant application merely followed the stipulations of the existing School Improvement Grant for Jersey City’s Lincoln High School, Snyder High School, and Center for the Arts at Fred Martin Middle School.

“We certainly did not intend to violate the contract,” she wrote in an email. The grant was submitted to the state department of education without Greco’s signature but did not make the list of completed applications at the federal Race to the Top program. (No New Jersey districts made the final cut.)

Lyles and Greco both say that they have had productive discussions since the failed grant application. “I acknowledged there should have been deeper communication and collaboration, and we both agreed he and I each missed opportunities to communicate concerns to one another,” said Lyles via email. “We have a great working relationship,” says Greco. “We have had a few brainstorming sessions already. We are partners in this.”

Lyles recently presented to the Board of Education a state-of-the-schools report, which praised progress in rising test scores but identified dropout rates and college-ready rates as too low, as well as “pervasive inequities throughout the district” in terms of access to funding, classes, and services.

The management of the city’s schools and other issues key top the upcoming contract negotiations are already becoming part of the political positioning leading up to the city’s mayoral election this May. Two-term mayor Healy has the backing of the NJEA and AFSCME Local 2262; his main challenger Councilman Fulop has spent three years helping to screen and endorsing winning school board candidates. Healy has also added to his slate former Superintendent Charles Epps, who was ousted by most of the current board and recently announced he was running for city council.

Fulop has in the past worked closely with prominent school-reform advocates such as Shelley Skinner, the deputy director of Better Education for Kids (B4K), the state’s most prominent school reform lobbying group.

Fulop has said that he is a “big believer” in longer school days, tenure reform, and charter schools, all typical interests of school reformers. For his part, Healy made a point of attending a union-hosted forum on November 27 that featured panelists critical of the state turnaround centers in Jersey City, Newark, and Patterson. With the union support and Epps alliance, Healy appears to be positioning himself as a defender of local control of district schools.

Greco and the union worry that state-mandated turnaround centers will lead to school closures, as they have in Newark. “We’re dealing with children, not Chevrolets,” Greco said to applause at the forum. His November letter found its own applauding crowd in cyberspace, where it was quickly picked up by bloggers critical of reform efforts, including former U.S. assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch.

Greco “joins our honor roll of heroes of public education,” Ravitch wrote, since he “figured out the trap” that the RTTT grant money “would be used to impose merit pay, which has never worked anywhere.”

Carly Berwick writes about education and culture. A former senior editor at The Week magazine, she has contributed to the New York Times, New York magazine, Bloomberg News, and other publications. A resident of Jersey City, she is also an adjunct professor of writing at New Jersey City University.

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