Finger-Pointing Precedes Teacher Contract Talks in Newark

John Mooney | January 25, 2012 | Education
With negotiations resuming, union, superintendent at odds over plans for troubled schools

The last time negotiators for the state-run Newark Public Schools met with the district’s teachers union, the $100 million Facebook gift was not yet national headlines and Superintendent Cami Anderson was still an administrator in New York City schools.

And it didn’t go well, either, ending with contract talks at an impasse ever since.

On Thursday, the two sides are set to sit down again at the offices of the Newark Teachers Union, seeking to jumpstart talks on the contract. They’re not starting particularly smoothly, either, with Anderson and the 5,000-member union continuing to be at odds over her plans for the district.

The latest source of tension was an anonymous staff survey the district proposed to send out to teachers to measure how they are feeling about their work conditions, their schools, their professional development, and a host of other subjects about their jobs.

This week, the teachers union’s leaders instructed their members not to participate, as did the district’s principals union, saying the survey could be slanted and misused and failed to include the union’s suggestions.

They also pointed out that the survey would be conducted by the New Teachers Project, a Brooklyn-based group first led by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former Washington D.C. chancellor.

“It’s an anti-union group that was not serving the purpose of a real survey but of union and teacher bashing,” said Joseph Del Grosso, the NTU’s longtime president.

The union’s decision set off Anderson, who responded in a letter to the district’s principals that Del Grosso and union leaders were included in the development of the survey. Anderson said she found it “unfortunate –- and surprising” that they were blocking what she saw as its valid use.

“We expect students to produce evidence of their learning,” Anderson said in the weekly letter to principals sent today. ”The best evidence of our ability to support teachers is teachers’ feedback on what they think and feel.”

Her spokeswoman last night maintained that New Teachers Project, known as TNTP, was not anti-union, nor was the survey. The survey questions ran the gamut, from what teachers thought of their evaluations to how long they expected to stay in teaching.

“This is not about TNTP; it’s a survey,” said Renee Harper, a district spokeswoman.

At least one prominent principal said he believed the survey would be a good tool, even if his union didn’t. “I support any initiative that will allow the school to gather data that will help us improve,” said Marlo Santos, principal of East Side High School in the Ironbound. “It is honest feedback, there should be nothing to hide.”

None of this bodes well for the talks that will begin tomorrow on the labor contract that most agreed will be central to many of the reform efforts that Anderson, not to mention Gov. Chris Christie, have trumpeted for the district.

They have ranged from extended instructional time to better evaluations and assignments systems to plans for revamping whole schools. Also, of course, will be negotiations over salaries and benefits for teachers in one of the better-paying districts in the state.

As such, the two sides have also clashed recently over Newark’s involvement in Christie’s pilot effort to test a new statewide teacher evaluation system. None of the district’s 80 schools were able to gain a majority of their teachers’ support to participate, leaving the pilot in just a small handful of schools.

Del Grosso said yesterday that he did not think these day-to-day disagreements would directly affect the contract talks, although he did not have high hopes that the impasse would be broken anytime soon. The talks already include a state mediator, and Del Grosso predicted they would soon enter a fact-finder stage.

But he also didn’t believe these clashes would much help, either. “My members ask me why they have time for these surveys and not enough time to negotiate our contract,” he said.