Newark Schools Chief Wants Teacher Performance Included in Layoff Criteria

Union leaders leap to defense of long-established contractual practice of basing job cuts on years of experience

Credit: Howard Best/NPS
Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson
In an unprecedented move, Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson has asked Christie administration to waive seniority rules that dictate how planned teacher layoffs in the state-run district are to be conducted.

The request essentially seeks the state’s permission for Anderson to consider teacher performance in determining the future layoffs of potentially hundreds of the state-run district’s teachers to fend off a looming budget crisis.

“In short, NPS must address its fiscal crisis while increasing teacher quality,” reads a draft of the letter Anderson is expected to release today.

”The only way to do this is to be granted an equivalency to base layoff decisions on both length of service and performance in order to remain competitive and offer quality schooling options for all Newark families. “

But the request, filed on Friday, faces long political and legal odds – and already loud protests — in the face of a so-far unbendable state law that requires staff reductions to be based solely on years of experience, under a policy known as “last in, first out.”

Anderson already faces intense public criticism of her “One Newark” plan for reorganizing the district , and union leaders decried the waiver request and threatened legal challenges — even before request was announced.

“It will enable her to mass-fire Newark’s teachers,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, in a statement Saturday. “This isn’t what students need or teachers deserve, and it creates more distrust in a community already laden with it.”

The application now sits on the desk of outgoing state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who has been among Anderson’s most steadfast supporters. Cerf said yesterday that he had yet to read the request – he has only a week before he leaves office on Feb. 28.

In her planned letter and accompanying presentation, Anderson says the district faces a shortfall of $100 million over the next three years. With enrollment dropping by as much as 30 percent, staffing would need to see a similar reduction over the next three years, amounting to close to 1,000 teachers, she said.

A copy of the waiver request was not provided this weekend, but Anderson’s expected letter and a previous presentation outline her rationale and her reasons for the request.

Specifically, Anderson has said she would seek a waiver of the lengthy administrative code that details rules for the operation of school districts.

The administrative code’s Title 6A, Chapter 32, Subchapter 5 specifically addresses seniority, starting as follows:

“Seniority … shall be determined according to the number of academic or calendar years of employment, or fraction thereof, as the case may be, in the school district in specific categories as hereinafter provided.”

Instead, Anderson performance-based plan would add another factor to the equation: the teacher’s effectiveness, as judged through a new evaluation system with a four-point scale ranging from “highly effective” to “ineffective.”

The presentation being sent out today says a performance-based system would spare from layoffs all teachers who have been deemed “highly effective,” and a majority of those evaluated as “effective,” the latter group roughly making up 60 percent of the overall teaching corps.

“We believe our students deserve the best and that NPS, just like high performing public charters and private schools, should be able to consider quality alongside years of service in making staffing decisions,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, Anderson’s chief talent officer.

“Highly effective teachers have life changing impacts on students – families know this and communities demand this,” she said. “We must retain our best.”

Under the proposed system, the layoffs would hit hardest among teachers who have already been moved out of classrooms to the district’s excess pool, representing teachers who were in schools closed by the district and have not been picked up by another school. Using a performance-based system, half of those teachers would face possible layoffs, the presentation said.

Virtually all teachers with “ineffective” ratings – about 4 percent of the teaching force – would face layoffs.

Still, before any of this happens, the political and legal realities pose enormous challenges. Even before the waiver request was announced, leaders of the district’s teachers union and its national organization issued a press release protesting Anderson’s plans, which had been anticipated for months.
“Yet again, Superintendent Anderson has demonstrated why the Newark community should regain control of its schools,” said Weingarten in a statement. “In her quest to impose her One Newark school consolidation plan … she is now seeking a wholesale waiver of state law and the contract she negotiated.”

But the legal questions may prove the most daunting, as the state’s seniority law is clear in requiring that any reductions in force be based on LIFO criteria. The waiver request addresses administrative regulations, which are only the guidelines for enforcing the law.

And as for any attempt to change the law, it has represented a deep line in the sand for the state’s powerful teachers unions and their ample number of supporters in the Legislature.

When the state revamped its tenure law two years ago with unanimous approval of the Legislature, the one piece left untouched was the LIFO clause. Christie has said that eliminating or at least modifying LIFO remains a priority, but he has little support among Democratic leaders.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said earlier this month that he would not support any changes in the LIFO protections, saying they prevent districts from targeting senior teachers with higher salaries.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight