Newark School Budget Not as Explosive, But Fireworks Still Appear Likely

No school closings planned, but hundreds of teacher and administrative layoffs seem likely under $990M spending plan

One year after a controversial reorganization of Newark’s public schools, Superintendent Cami Anderson’s budget for the next school year calls for no further school closings or consolidations, at least for now.

But don’t expect smooth sailing ahead. As enrollment declines and charter schools grow in the state-run district, the $990 million budget presented last night will surely mean scores – if not hundreds — of staff reductions, both in the classroom and in the central office, officials said.

And reviving a debate from a year ago, Anderson is again going to ask the state for a waiver allowing the district to reduce teaching staff based, in part, on performance — not based on seniority alone, which is required under statute.

Even so, the proposed budget won’t have the impact of the one introduced last year, when Anderson introduced her “One Newark” reorganization plan and an unprecedented shuffling of the district’s schools.

“There are no changes in the portfolio (of schools),” said Gabrielle Wyatt, district’s director of strategy, in an interview yesterday.

The budget proposal also comes with at least some acquiescence — if not support – from the local advisory board, which for the first time since the state’s takeover in 1994 has regained some limited fiscal controls. Anderson has been meeting with the board’s finance committee since early February.

Still, Anderson’s relations with the board and at least some sectors of the public remain tense – Anderson did not attend the board’s public session last night where the budget was discussed.

“I am strongly disappointed that the superintendent is not attending,” said board president Rashon Hasan before the meeting. “Every meeting is important, but the budget especially is there to be supporting the superintendent’s vision. She should be here.”

[related]In her absence, the board voted unanimously last night to reject the budget, putting to the test new fiscal powers bestowed last year after the board challenged the state’s continued takeover in court.

Anderson can now veto the action, but the board would then have the right to appeal to the state education commissioner.

Nonetheless, some were resigned to the fact that Anderson will likely have the final say.

“The reason she doesn’t need to be here is that while tonight we vote no, tomorrow she’ll just vote yes,” said board member Phil Seelinger.

The proposed budget is 1.5 percent lower than the current $1.1 billion budget, and actually amounts to an even steeper 5 percent cut when funding is removed and allotted the district’s more than 20 charter schools. That funding is rising from $213 million this year to $226 million in 2015-16.

The budget includes a few new initiatives, including the introduction of a co-teaching model for special-education programs to help reduce class sizes and the use of federal funding to extend the school day at certain schools.

But the layoffs are sure to be the most disputed issue in the months ahead, as the district continues to adjust to the growth of charter schools, which now serve more than one-third of the city’s students.

District officials said they could not offer a rough estimate of possible administrative and teacher layoffs until vacancies and retirements are factored in, but they said job cuts are definitely coming.

“The Newark public schools cannot avoid layoffs any longer — it has become unavoidable,” assistant superintendent Roger Leon said last night. “Newark public schools can no longer afford the same number of teachers.”

Central office layoffs could amount to as many as 300 positions, but officials said they expected that number would drop with attrition. Last year, 167 central office staffers were laid off after a comparable initial estimate.

Estimates on teaching layoffs were less clear, but Anderson and her staff have previously said that teaching staff need to drop as much as 30 percent over three years to match declining enrollment. The district now employs about 2,900 teachers.

The waiver request filed with the state Department of Education was controversial last year and will surely spark even more debate this time around, as local opposition to Anderson – including from Mayor Ras Baraka and other top political leaders – has grown.

While the new waiver application was not made available, the waiver request last year contended that the law gives school districts some flexibility in determining teacher layoffs, factoring in a teacher’s performance, and not just basing job cuts on seniority under the long-established practice known as “last in, first out” or LIFO.

But that waiver request last year was ultimately met with silence from the administration, as former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf was on his way out and incoming Commissioner David Hespe chose not to move on the application.

Whether Hespe will be more amenable this time remains to be seen, but he did reappoint Anderson last month to another year on the job.

Hasan also said he has heard that other school districts could potentially join in the waiver request.

Either way, a lot of attention will be focused on the district’s growing reserve pool of teachers who have already been cut from regular classroom positions. That pool – called “educators without placement” (EWP) – now includes more than 240 teachers, who still hold other staff positions in the schools and are costing the district more than $20 million million a year.

Board members last night questioned why the district would not use the mechanisms available under the state’s new tenure law, known as TEACHNJ, to remove low-performing teachers. Under the new law, teachers with two consecutive years of substandard evaluations can be brought up on tenure charges.

But Anderson so far has had little success using that process, losing virtually every tenure case that has reached state arbitrators.

District officials said they would continue on that track, but will also pursue a “performance-based” strategy that factors in the quality of the teachers and not just their experience.

”We have used every tool we have been given in TEACHNJ, but still have a (EWP) pool going into Year 3,” Wyatt said. “TEACHNJ has not been enough.”

The comments in the sparsely attended public hearing last night were wide-ranging, although none were in support of Anderson’s plans. They ranged from complaints about what they called the unabated growth of charter schools to the district’s failure to even provide copies of the budget to the public for the hearing.

But the next battle will likely be with the unions, as they face the prospect of significant layoffs. The secretary of the Newark Teachers Union, Michael Dixon, sat in the audience and did not speak publicly.

But afterward, he said the union would surely fight Anderson’s plans, both the layoffs and the waiver request, calling the moves “union-busting.”

“It’s crazy that she is putting (the waiver request) up there again,” said Michael Dixon, the NTU’s secretary-treasurer. “It goes to show she doesn’t care about the district. They’re the deciders, and she’ll do what she wants to do.”