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New Era of Cooperation in Newark Schools Gives Way to Animosity

One year after celebrated signing of teacher contract, national union president charges officials have reneged on promises

A year after final approval of Newark’s teacher contract – a “Kumbaya” moment hailed nationally as a landmark example of labor-management cooperation – the good will appears to be all but gone.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the national American Federation of Teachers who personally helped negotiate the Newark pact, yesterday returned to the city to lambast the district for failing to live up to its promise in that deal – or in much of anything else, for that matter.

Weingarten’s visit was part of a 90-city campaign that the AFT helped lead this week to push back against what it calls the draconian cuts in urban public schools nationwide. Newark has been especially in the spotlight, with continued budget reductions and school closures coinciding with the expansion of charter schools in the city.

An estimated 200 people – including students, union leaders and teachers -- joined Weingarten for the rally in downtown Newark, walking up to the front doors of the Newark school administrative offices on Broad Street before being turned away.

“This gives you a good sense that they don’t want to hear from parents, teachers and students of this great community,” Weingarten said through a megaphone to the gathered crowd.

“If you don’t want to listen to the parents, the teachers and the students, then don’t run the schools,” she said.

In a separate interview, Weingarten aimed some of her harshest and most personal criticism at the teacher contract ratified last November, criticizing not only state appointed schools Superintendent Cami Anderson, but also the man who appointed her, Gov. Chris Christie, who gave the final go-ahead to that labor agreement.

“A lot of people feel a huge sense of betrayal,” Weingarten said. “The cuts in state aid, the school closures, it has been the parents, teachers and students who have been left frustrated at the lack of responsiveness that the district has taken here.

“You made a promise to act differently, and you have instead acted exactly the same,” she said of Christie.

The agreement between the district and the Newark Teachers Union included the state’s first large-scale use of performance bonuses for teachers found to be performing at a high level. It also included extensive provisions for teachers to take part in peer evaluations and the reviews of the final job ratings.

Weingarten cited what she called “grievance upon grievance” lodged by union members who say the district has not lived up to its pledges, which included additional support and coaching of lower-performing teachers.

Of Anderson, Weingarten said she has “turned her back and stopped listening to teachers’ voices. . . .She has said tough luck, and if you can’t do it, you’ll be fired.”

Anderson largely stayed out of the fray yesterday, leaving her spokesman to issue a statement criticizing the rally as a whole.

Spokesman Matthew Frankel said Anderson’s new “One Newark” universal enrollment plan for the district – involving three-quarters of the city’s charter schools – is testament to her reaching out to all parts of the community.

"Under One Newark, community activists, clergy, parents, teachers and other strategic partners have joined together to create a community-wide agenda to change decade-old policies that simply do not work for Newark anymore,” Frankel said in an email.

“When NTU embraces this idea, great things have been accomplished,” he said. “We want the union to be part of the solution and have put our money where our mouth is, with massive investments in pay and development, but today the union is simply putting its money into negativity.”

In a phone interview, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf was less reluctant to engage, and he strongly contested Weingarten’s specific claims.

He said an additional $50 million was spent to meet the agreement’s promises to teachers and other staff.

“I can assure you that the contract has been fully and honorably implemented,” Cerf said. “I am absolutely confident that all the components of the contract have occurred exactly as they were agreed upon.”

The bulk of the additional money came from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the Newark schools.

Cerf added that the city teachers union subsequently blocked the district from gaining federal Race to the Top money for new technology and programming, because they union claimed it has not been kept apprised of the application.

“What Randi seems to have forgotten is this contract brought $50 million more into the pockets of Newark teachers, while it was the NTU who blocked Newark’s children from receiving $34 million (in Race to the Top money),” Cerf said.

The claims and counterclaims are a far cry from the moment last year when Christie, Cerf and Anderson stood with Weingarten and Newark Teachers Union president Del Grosso to announce the new contract.

The AFT’s own politics cannot be discounted, to be sure, as part of the dynamic. As Christie’s open flirts with running for president in 2016, he is raising his profile in the national debate in which the AFT will surely play an active role, all but certainly supporting whoever is the Democratic candidate.

And the NTU has some internal politics of its own to address, as Del Grosso has faced an increasingly vocal faction in the union’s leadership that opposed the contract to begin with.

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