NJEA Clockwork Elections Belie Stormy Relations with Governor, Administration

Buono endorsement and new super PAC could indicate teachers union is ready to fight

For all the attention the teachers union and its leadership receive, the election of the NJEA’s top officers is uneventful to the point of predictability. There’s rarely even a challenger these days.

The vice president gets elected president; the secretary treasurer is elected vice president.

The one relatively new face is that of the secretary treasurer, who’s starting out on the first rung of the leadership ladder.

Yet for all their predictability, this year’s leadership transition comes at a time where the New Jersey Education Association faces some of its biggest challenges, with the union under current president Barbara Keshishian often at loggerheads — if not open combat — with Gov. Chris Christie and his administration.

Keshishian, who steps down after her two-term limit, was famously the union president who was shown the door by Christie in his first year in office after the two met and she refused to call for the resignation of a county president who had said he wished the governor dead.

Whether it was pension reforms or the governor’s often-combative rhetoric, the next two years didn’t get much better. While there have been some moments of détente since then, Christie and the NJEA have largely kept a healthy distance. (The county president in question, Joseph Coppola of Bergen County, was reelected this week.)

Meanwhile, the union yesterday announced the results of its latest election. Current vice president Wendell Steinhauer was named to his first two-year term as president. Steinhauer, who ran unopposed, is a high school math teacher in Riverside.

Marie Bliston, a special education teacher in Gloucester’s County’s Washington Township, moved up to vice president, also unopposed. The new name is Sean Spiller, who easily won the sole challenged race to be secretary-treasurer. Spiller teaches science in Wayne, and is a Montclair councilman.

All three will start in the paid, full-time positions on September 1.

They could be in for a rocky ride. The NJEA’s delegate assembly has endorsed Christie’s presumptive Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono. It has also created a new Super PAC that is expected to play an important role in an election that is already shaping up to be the state’s costliest.

Unlike the NJEA’s current state PAC, the Super PAC can accept contributions without limits and doesn’t have to disclose the donors to the IRS until after the election.

Calling it a critical time for the union, Steinhauer said he would not support policies that he believes will hurt teachers and harm schools.

The union has been most outspoken in opposing Christie’s pending proposal for the state’s first school voucher program. It also is opposed to the expanded influence of student testing overall and, more specifically, the use of test scores as a significant measure in evaluating teachers.

“We must be willing to consider new ideas and try new things when the research points us in that direction,” Steinhauer said in the NJEA’s announcement. “But it also means taking a strong, principled stand against some of the destructive ideas that are being imposed on our schools today.”

“Parents and educators alike are very concerned about things such as the over-emphasis on standardized testing, which is eroding the quality of education children are getting in their classrooms,” he said. “I am very open-minded, and I welcome challenging discussions. But I will not stand by and watch our public schools be sold to the highest bidder.”