Newark Teachers Union Takes Its Grievances to State Assembly Committee

John Mooney | October 29, 2014 | Education
Representative tells education panel that Superintendent Cami Anderson has not followed state rules for teacher evaluations

Credit: NJTV
Cami Anderson, Newark's superintendent of schools.
With the landmark teachers contract in Newark in its third and final year, prospects are not promising for such amicable agreement on the next contract.

The Newark Teachers Union has stepped up its complaints about how state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson has implemented the existing contract, taking its case to the Legislature this week and contending that she has failed to comply with state law pertaining to teacher evaluations.

But Anderson and state officials are hardly backing down from their push to remove low-performing teachers through legal channels, with the Christie administration this week contesting a state arbitrator’s recent decision rejecting the first of what could be dozens of tenure charges brought against teachers in the district.

Anderson has about 20 tenure cases pending before state arbitrators. But she has also put about 300 other teachers on notice that they need to improve, after at least one year of sub-standard evaluations, or potentially face similar fates.

All this comes as the current contract – which featured performance bonuses of up to $12,500 for high-performing teachers — winds down. New contract talks have yet to begin, officials on both sides say.

The issue came up anew this week, when one of the top officers of the NTU testified at an Assembly education committee hearing on Monday regarding teacher preparation and induction.

Repeating long-running claims, NTU operations director John Abeigon, an increasingly prominent voice in the union, told the committee that Anderson had violated a number of fundamental requirements in the state’s new teacher tenure and evaluation law.

Among them are mandates for multiple observations and conferences between supervisors and teachers, as well as development of improvement plans for those not receiving satisfactory ratings.

“That process has been ignored in the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school year,” Abeigon told the committee. “Cami Anderson, on top of a self-declared deficit of $100 million, now seeks to pour millions more in taxpayer money into teacher arbitration hearings and certainly appeals that could have been avoided if she simply followed the law.”

Abeigon presented the committee with a spreadsheet listing nearly 60 teachers who he said have been brought up on tenure or other disciplinary measures without full compliance with the law, with violations ranging from failure to complete evaluations to lack of support.

The union leader found a sympathetic ear from the Democrats on the committee, several of whom have already pressed Anderson with little success to come before the Legislature to discuss her controversial “One Newark” reorganization plan.

‘We’re pretty familiar with the position that Newark teachers as well as parents have taken regarding Superintendent Anderson’s plans for the district,” said state Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), himself a former Newark school employee.

“I’m pleased you came to testify today, as many of the legislators have not seen the distress and disruption that has taken place in Newark.”

But the legislators also acknowledged there is little they can do beyond bringing the issues to light.

“I am very, very concerned about what it going on in Newark,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), the committee’s chairman. “The divisiveness is beyond comprehension. I don’t know what we can do legislatively, but it’s an awful situation.”

Anderson did not testify, nor were representatives of her administration invited, but a district spokesperson later denied that any regulations or law had been violated, saying the union had not filed specific grievances in the cases cited and that the union had refused several invitations to meet to work out any differences.

An internal review process had seen about 100 teachers appealing their evaluations, said Vanessa Rodriguez, the district’s chief talent officer, with only a half-dozen of those evaluations being reversed.

‘We have accurately implemented the contract and have been in alignment with the letter of the law,” Rodriguez said.

The process is nonetheless seeing its day in court, or at least before state-appointed arbitrators, and the district is awaiting those rulings. A decision released last week came in against the district, finding that Anderson had sought to use two years of unsatisfactory evaluations against a teacher when the state law only went into full effect a year ago.

But the Christie administration stood by Anderson in a letter to her chief counsel this week, saying that while the law had been in effect for a year, there was nothing to preclude the use of evaluations from two years ago in bringing tenure charges.