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Teachers Union Leadership Change Comes at Critical Time for Newark Schools

Del Grosso to end 20-year tenure at helm as contract talks loom and controversy continues over Anderson’s ‘One Newark’ reforms

Joseph Del Grosso, president Newark Teachers Union
Joseph Del Grosso, president Newark Teachers Union.

For the first time in 20 years, Joseph Del Grosso won’t be running for reelection as president of the Newark Teachers Union.

Marking the end of two decades of union leadership in the state’s largest school district, Del Grosso will step down as leader of the vocal and influential union at a time when the city’s schools are still in turmoil over state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson’s “One Newark” reorganization initiative.

The union, with Del Grosso at the helm, has been among the reorganization’s harshest critics.

The district is also facing a new round of contract negotiations with its teachers union, the first contract talks since Anderson and Del Grosso reached a landmark agreement in 2012 that provided for the state’s first large-scale use of performance bonuses for teachers. Del Grosso has since been critical of Anderson’s implementation of the new contract, saying she did not live up to its promises.

His decision to not seek reelection wasn’t a big surprise, as he had hinted for several months that he might step down and has not been in good health for longer than that. Repeated efforts to contact him over the last two days were unsuccessful.

Still, Anderson is not likely to see any greater support from any of Del Grosso’s likely successors.

The three candidates certified by the union on Tuesday are:

  • John Abeigon, the NTU’s director of organization and a close ally of Del Grosso;

  • Michael Dixon, the union’s elected secretary-treasurer; and

  • Branden Rippey, a leader of a dissident faction of the union, who says the NTU has been too easy on Anderson.

The union vote is taking place by mail-in ballot, starting May 26. Ballots will be opened and counted on June 23.

Abeigon, who has been the union’s de facto spokesman for several months, said last night that he wanted to continue on the same path as Del Grosso and the union’s former executive director, Pietro Petino, who died in 2011.

“I am a staunch unionist, which I got from Pietro, and also have the political side, which I got from Joe,” Abeigon said.

Still, Abeigon acknowledged changing times for labor unions.

“They all came in from the anti-war movement, while my generation is different, a social media generation and all its challenges it brings in organizing,” he said.

And while he may be the frontrunner to assume the union’s top post, Abeigon said the union has divisions that need to be bridged.

“I have never taken any election for granted,” he said.

Rippey, a social studies teacher at Science Park High School, lost to Del Grosso by just nine votes in the last election. Nonetheless, the “New Visions” slate allied with Rippey won control of the union’s executive board, and he is expected to be a formidable challenger to Abeigon and Dixon.

“What’s at stake: the Newark public schools, the teaching profession, and the union itself,” Rippey said last night, following a debate with Dixon. “The (New Visions-led) caucus has been the only group that has stood up consistently in their defense.”

Del Grosso, an elementary school teacher, was first elected in 1995 in the midst of the state’s takeover of the Newark schools. Del Grosso himself was a dissident voice when he toppled longtime president Carole Graves on a platform that the NTU leaders were not listening enough to the union’s members.

Del Grosso had risen to prominence among the rank-and-file more than 20 years earlier, when he was among nearly a dozen NTU members jailed during the 1971 teachers strike.

"Carole was a great leader for a long time," Del Grosso told the New York Times in 1995. "But in the end, she had a fatal attraction to management."

From his early days as the NTU’s president to his final years, Del Grosso always relished the images he hung in his office depicting his role in that 1971 strike.

"They are there to remind me which side I am on," Del Grosso said.

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