It was a show for the ages, a reminder of the mid-1990s when the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) defiantly took on the state’s takeover of the city’s schools in nearly any public meeting it could.
Joseph Del Grosso, the union’s longtime president, stood at the microphone of Barringer High School’s auditorium on Tuesday night. With placards waving around him, he invoked William Shakespeare, Robert Frost and anyone or anything else he could to blast Gov. Chris Christie’s plans for expanding charter schools in the district.
"Charter schools are what they are, charter schools, and should not be barter schools that bargain for space in our schools at the expense of our children," Del Grosso said, pounding the lectern to the cheers of his members.
Yet what made it interesting is how much before this week the union leadership was seen for its flexibility on some of these hot-button issues -- some to the criticism of the union’s own members and maybe a factor in the sudden rancor, too.
Part of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) , the NTU and the other handful of AFT chapters in the state had actually supported the administration’s now-notorious Race to the Top application. The NTU and other AFT members are totally separate from the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) , the state’s dominant teachers union and at frequent battle with Christie and his policies
Yet Del Grosso has been more open to at least some of them, promotes the NTU’s own plans for tenure reform and toughening teacher accountability and has even been open to merit pay.
Yesterday, DelGrosso said the line was crossed with Christie’s plans for moving charter schools into existing school buildings, a co-existence that he can’t support. The NTU has critical of charter schools in the past, and a die-hard union guy who went to jail for his job in the city’s 1970 strike, Del Grosso relished the excitement generated at the meeting.
"That was good, that was encouraging," he said yesterday. "It showed the people of Newark are behind what we were talking about.”
Yet maybe part of the sudden defiance was also a behind-the-scenes divide within the 4,800 member union that Del Grosso acknowledges he needs to bridge.
The leadership team faces rare opposition in the upcoming officer’s election, some say Del Grosso’s biggest challenge yet as he seeks an eighth term.
Leading the opposition is Jose Velazquez, a Social Studies teacher at University High School and 24-year member of the NTU. He said the union and Del Grosso hasn’t done enough in recent years to stand up to the state, especially in the last year under the public onslaught from Christie.
"Our opponents have been out there, but not our union," Velazquez said. "The union is at the weakest point it’s ever been. It’s become apparent to us the need to re-energize."
Velazquez, the union representative at University High School, said the NTU had been successful in bringing better pay and benefits to the district’s teachers, leaving them some of the best-paid in the state. But he said much has changed, and Del Grosso’s pronouncements on Tuesday were "too little, too late."
"This isn’t about the past, this is about the future," Velazquez said. "This is a new fight, a fight for our lives."
Del Grosso responded last night with his own slaps at Velazquez, saying he only has gotten involved in the union’s activities in the last year. "If anything is too little, too late, it’s Jose," he said.
“My campaign will be on having a proven track record in negotiating with the state,” Del Grosso said. “Where was he through those days?”
The official campaign itself won’t start until next month, once the nominations are filed and approved on April 1. The actual voting is done by mail in May.
And it’s not like the union won’t have much to do in the meantime. Both men were at the district advisory board’s budget hearing last night, where district officials said the district faces a $75 million budget gap for next year that could require the layoff of another 400 employees, including 150 teachers. The district laid off that many this year.
The NTU is also currently without a 2010-2011 contract for its members, since the uncertainty over who will be the next state-appointed superintendent has stalled talks of a new agreement.
But apparently recovered from health problems last year, Del Grosso said he’s up for the task. "I’ll keep going until the fire goes out," he said yesterday. "So far, so good."