Teacher Contract Deal in Newark Came With Strings Attached

John Mooney | June 25, 2013 | Education
Facebook founder’s group required accountability, reserved right to take back money

mark zuckerberg
When Newark’s landmark teacher contract was agreed upon this winter, a key factor in pulling off the deal was that a big chunk of retroactive salaries would be paid with $31 million out of the $100 million gift made to the city’s schools by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Now, documents released by the district show the trade-offs and conditions the school district chose to accept in its agreement with the Zuckerberg-funded Foundation for Newark’s Future.

According to a copy of the December 2012 grant agreement obtained by the Education Law Center through an Open Public Records Act request, the district and FNF agreed that the district would have to account for how the money was spent well into the future.

In one of the more notable provisions, FNF also reserved the right to “suspend payments” if current school-district leadership was replaced by individuals FNF didn’t support. The provision specifically named positions now held by Superintendent Cami Anderson, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Paymon Rouhanifard, the district’s chief strategy officer.

“FNF reserves the right to suspend payments under this agreement or any other grant until it, in its sole discretion, is satisfied that the successor of any key personnel has comparable quality and commitment and is likely to be effective,” read the document released.

Given the bulk of the retroactive payments have already been disbursed, how much this provision will play is uncertain. The first disbursement of 90 percent of the $31 million has been paid, officials said.

The agreement also only briefly mentions the additional $18 million that FNF agreed to provide for the more notable piece of the new labor contract — the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses for teachers.

But the leverage built into the agreement has nonetheless sparked complaints by some critical of the school district’s management under the Christie administration — and Anderson, in particular. Some of them say it’s another example of a private group influencing public policy.

Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, chair of the district’s advisory board, which has seeking to regain local control of the district, said the board was never apprised of the agreement and that she saw it only after the ELC’s OPRA request.

“I found a number of things questionable and in some cases extremely disturbing,” she said yesterday. “This gives an unprecedented amount of leverage to an independent organization. That’s the most egregious thing to me.”

Baskerville-Richardson was also critical of provisions that had Anderson making more regular reports to the foundation than to the local board. “It seems unethical to me that this group has information when the local board doesn’t,” she said.

David Sciarra, executive director of the ELC, the Newark-based advocacy group, added: “This is another example of a foundation seeking to promote preferred education reforms by giving money to state and local education agencies, without any public disclosure.

“These secret transactions erode public confidence in our public schools and the state education department,” he wrote in an email. “We need new laws to rein in this practice.”

Efforts to reach Anderson and officers of the foundation were unsuccessful yesterday. The agreement was crafted under FNF’s former executive director Greg Taylor, who left the post this spring.

But contacted last night, Cerf said that while he does not recall all the details of the agreement of which he was a signer, he said the conditions were not entirely surprising.

“I don’t know if you would call it standard, but they are investing a lot of money and they would want assurances,” Cerf said.

But he also said that since the retroactive pay is already in the hands of teachers, there is no chance it would be pulled back now — no matter what happens to himself, Anderson or Rouhanifard.

“It is beyond ridiculous that anyone thinks this money is suddenly going to be recovered from teachers,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, it is irrelevant at this point.”

Still, the agreement does call for continued reporting by him and the district through 2015, requiring quarterly reports until then. The last one was due in April, and Sciarra of the ELC said he was told it would be released as part of the OPRA request this week, the last week of June.

Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, which reached the labor contract agreement with the district, said not all retroactive pay has gone out yet and that the payments remain subject to a labor grievance. The two sides are still arguing over whether teachers who retired in the last two years will receive retroactive pay, he said.

Del Grosso said he also is concerned about how much influence the agreement gives to the foundation, but he is confident that his members will get paid regardless.

“This is the contract the district has to fulfill,” he said. “I’m not worried where the money has to come from [for his members], they still have to pay.”