Unresolved Labor Issues Loom Large Over State-Run Newark School District

John Mooney | September 8, 2015 | Education
Talks on new teacher contract hang fire while administrators enter 6th year without new pact

Headquarters of the Newark Teachers Union.
The state-run Newark school district’s historic 2012 contract with Newark teachers – including five-figure performance bonuses for some teachers — has become as prime talking point for Gov. Chris Christie as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination.

But three years later after the signing of that accord, Newark’s labor relations are hardly idyllic as the state’s largest district enters the next school year — the teachers union hasn’t even begun negotiations to replace the expired pact, while Newark’s principals and supervisors are entering their sixth year without a new contract.

It’s not all dire, by any means, as the principals are at least in the fact-finding stage of the bargaining process, with an outside fact-finder seeking to devise a compromise.

And the administration on Friday announced it had reached a deal with SEIU Local 617, representing custodial, nurse’s aides and security staff, giving them 2.5 percent pay raises and $1,600 in retroactive pay. Under that deal, the roughly 900 staffers affected will need to pass a yet-to-be determined evaluation process to get the raises, a provision the administration described as the first in the state for such support staff.

“The Newark Public Schools continue to lead the way in improving its relationship with its workforce,” said Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf in announcing the deal. “Much like we did three years ago in our contract with the district’s teachers, this agreement now provides for performance-based raises and promotions for the district’s support personnel.”

The prime question now is whether Cerf can get the same kind of deal with Newark teachers after three years of often-acrimonious relations between his predecessor, Cami Anderson, and the Newark Teachers Union.

When it was negotiated in 2012, only 60 percent of union members actually voted on the teacher contract. There have been deep divisions since then over procedures for teacher evaluations and oversight. One of the latest disputes has involved the district’s practice of withholding pay for teachers gaining advanced degrees unless they come from select institutions.

John Abeigon, the newly elected president of the NTU, said there are so many grievances pending before state arbitrators that it would not be worth starting new talks at this point, at least not on the contested provisions.

“The last contract expired on June 30th, and I haven’t even heard (new talks) mentioned,” he said yesterday. “There is no urgency on my part.”

Abeigon said if the last contract were voted on again today, it probably wouldn’t pass.

“I don’t think we’d even bring it forward under the circumstances,” he said.

The new union president, who succeeds longtime president Joe DelGrosso, who died last month, said he hopes to meet with Cerf in the coming week to settle some lingering disputes pertaining to teacher evaluations.

“That will be very important, whether he’ll continue (Anderson’s) policies or he’ll instead be his own man,” Abeigon said.

[related]When contract talks do start, Abeigon did not rule out performance bonuses or evaluations being tied to incremental raises, as long as the raises could be recovered after an improved evaluation.

“We’d do a performance piece, but it would need a lot stricter provisions and not just by the superintendent’s authority,” Abeigon said.

The principals’ contract – also covering vice principals, chief innovation officers and heads of athletics – brings its own challenges, enough that the two sides went to fact-finding earlier this year during Anderson’s regime.

“We couldn’t get anywhere with her,” said Leonard Pugliese, the executive director of the City Association of Supervisors and Administrators, AFSA 20, representing 300 workers.

Pugliese said this weekend that he would not rule out starting up talks again with Cerf, but he said the fact-finding would need to continue.

“If the current administration is willing to sit down with us, we would do it at the same time,” he said.

One key topic of discussion is retroactive pay after six years without raises of any kind, Pugliese said, and what he described as Anderson’s efforts to “decimate the contract.”

He, too, did not rule out a performance piece, but also said there would have to be strong built-in protections for his members. The union just won a bitterly fought case over Anderson’s transfer of seven principals to central office jobs in a move the union claimed was punitive. State Education Commissioner David Hespe sided with the union.

“We can’t have a contract without meaningful protections for personnel,”
Pugliese said. “That is very, very important.”