Steinhauer blasts Newark attack on tenure, seniority

Published on Monday, February 24, 2014

NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer sent the following letter to Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson this evening in response to her attempt to eliminate tenure and seniority rights for 700 Newark teachers:

Dear Ms. Anderson,

I am writing to you on behalf of the members of the Newark Teachers Association (NTA) and their 200,000 fellow NJEA members, who share my deep concern over the educational climate in Newark.

Just last week, NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan testified before a hearing held by the Legislative Black Caucus at Newark City Hall.  She expressed NJEA’s opposition to the “One Newark” plan, citing in particular its deliberate disregard of legitimate community concerns and interests.  She acknowledged that change may be necessary in Newark, but that it must be intelligent, respectful change, representing the interests of Newark citizens, parents, students, teachers, school staff, school administration, and elected officials.  Unfortunately, your actions have failed to advance such change, and have, instead, created a climate of hostility and opposition among all groups of stakeholders.

Now, the Newark community is being asked to concur with your “Equivalency Request” – a proposal to lay off hundreds of experienced teachers and replace half of them with untested Teach for America graduates with no sustained classroom experience.  Your spokesperson said your goal is to hire teachers who are qualified to teach “hard-to-staff subject areas, like bilingual and special education.”  It is disingenuous at best to suggest that new college graduates with minimal training in education, no matter how motivated, possess the skills and knowledge necessary to teach bilingual and special education to students in a distressed urban district.

A large portion of the proposed layoffs would apparently come from the ranks of the “Educators Without Placement Sites” (EWPS) – teachers who apparently are not deemed effective enough to teach in Newark’s classrooms.  Given that the State of New Jersey has been responsible for running Newark’s schools for nearly 20 years, whose responsibility is it that hundreds of allegedly ineffective teachers are still being kept on the payroll for employment that is never going to come their way?

I reject out of hand your assertion in your “Overview of the Equivalency Request” that the streamlined tenure law, enacted in August of 2012, is too “lengthy and expensive to address NPS’s urgent fiscal issues.”   Is it your position that you could not, in the course of two years, seek the dismissal of teachers deemed to be ineffective?  The new law was specifically written – in a collaborative effort involving NJEA, Commissioner Cerf, key legislators, and many other educational stakeholders – to make the dismissal of an ineffective teacher far less time-consuming and expensive.  Your assertion that “each tenure case costs between $50K and $200K in legal fees” is patently untrue, given that dismissal cases that do go to appeal are heard within 90 days by an arbitrator in a hearing that lasts no more than days, rather than the weeks, months, or years that were too often the case under the prior law.  Dismissals cost a small fraction of what you suggest, and you must know that.

But that assertion does provide a window into what the “Equivalency Request” is really all about.  You are either unwilling or unable to work within the law and its streamlined process (a process which guarantees every teacher a fair, but expeditious hearing,) and are primarily focused on “NPS’s urgent fiscal issues,” with no regard for the law. 

You must know that your request for “equivalency” is a violation of state law.  Both the dismissal process for removing ineffective teachers, and the right of veteran teachers to be protected from just this kind of selective reduction-in-force are codified in state statute; the first under the TeachNJ act, and the latter under the statute governing regulations promulgated by the State Board of Education.  Any attempt to circumvent those regulations is a violation of law, and any effort to change them must be done so in the full light of public hearings and discussion.

I find it ironic, to say the least, that you are claiming that in order to effect cost savings, you must violate state laws that you say are standing in the way of allowing you to address the current NPS staffing surplus.  That surplus was willfully created by the State of New Jersey, which manages the Newark Public Schools, through the creation of a large cadre of EWPS’s and the rapid expansion of charter schools, which have drained the city’s public schools of both students and resources.  Now, you are claiming you and your state-operated district must be exempt from the law in order to solve the problems created by the state’s failure to implement the very laws that could have prevented this situation.  Has the state really failed so badly in Newark that the law should no longer apply there?  Tenure laws and due process exist to protect our schools from exactly that sort of administrative misconduct and incompetence.

The time has long passed for avoiding the harsh truth behind the actions being perpetrated in Newark by the state.  They are using Newark as a laboratory for the closure of public schools, and the handing over of the state resources needed to fund them to less accountable parties.  That is an undeniable and obvious fact.

The SDA is currently sitting on billions of dollars in school modernization and construction funding, while thousands of Newark students attend more than 80 schools desperately awaiting that funding to repair or replace some physical plants that were built shortly after the Civil War.   That is a disgrace, and it is time for the public and the media to speak out loudly about it.

NJEA will oppose your “equivalency request” at every turn.  It is illegal, and it will destroy the careers and futures of hundreds of teachers who are caught up in a struggle that they did not create, and by which they certainly should not be victimized.

Sincerely,

Wendell Steinhauer, President
New Jersey Education Association


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