Building a network to fight the education policy battles that affect students, school employees
By Kathryn Coulibaly
It began with a phone call. John Staab, then the local association president in Pine Hill and an NJEA UniServ consultant, got a call from his superintendent. The superintendent announced that the district would be privatizing support staff positions. John Staab hit the roof.
“I told the superintendent that I would be calling in NJEA’s ‘hounds of hell’ and we would expose everything the district was doing wrong,” John Staab recalled.
By 2 p.m., the superintendent called John Staab back and said, “Please, don’t call NJEA; we’ll figure this out.” Bob Antonelli, the NJEA staff person who has primary responsibility for educational support professional (ESP) issues, including privatization, said, “Well, that was the fastest privatization fight in history.”
For John Staab, who is now an NJEA staff member, this was a breakthrough moment.
“I guess I was very convincing that this would be traumatic for him as the superintendent,” he said. “I came up with the idea that we needed to instill this fear in other school boards and superintendents. And, because privatization fights were happening all the time, across the state, we needed a wide network to give districts the ‘hounds of hell’ treatment.”
Since 2013, NJEA members have been building a powerful network to fight privatization. Today, the South Jersey Anti-Privatization Coalition is a model for other member-driven movements within the state. Previously, the members of the network hesitated to share their story because they didn’t want the exposure to affect their ability to fight—and win. Now, with the passage of two ESP Job Justice bills, and a shift in how these fights are handled, they are eager to share their strategies in the hopes that members across the state will benefit from their experience.
Roots in PARCC organizing
The coalition was based on strategies that emerged during NJEA members’ fight against high-stakes standardized testing, and John Staab had a front-row seat to those activities. His wife, Colette Staab, an art teacher in Pine Hill, Camden County, was a vocal opponent of high-stakes testing.
Along with a core group of activists that included Chrissy Kosar, Kelly Ann Morris, Heidi Brown, Carolyn Corbi and many others, they used their skills to help local associations address board members, education department officials, and politicians to educate them on the misrepresentation of standardized testing.
Colette Staab, who shares three sons with John, lives in Washington Township, Gloucester County. She created a Facebook page for her community to help parents interested in refusing the PARCC test. The activists also organized members to address board meetings in other towns including Pitman, Camden, Swedesboro and more.
“They helped us; we helped them,” Colette Staab said. “And it worked. We got amazing numbers and we built our confidence. As we started to have more privatization fights, John wanted to organize groups of people to fight. We used what we’d learned during the PARCC fight to combat privatization.”
For Kosar, activism is simply a part of her life. “I love to facilitate things; I love to bring someone on board and show them some things and watch them soar.”
Kosar welcomed the chance to speak out on education issues in her community and in other parts of the state. Kosar met Heidi Brown fighting against PARCC.
“I had a lot of ESPs saying, ‘Why are you fighting against PARCC? It’s a teacher thing.’” Kosar recalled. “I said, ‘Not really. Funding for standardized testing comes out of the district budget; when that money is put elsewhere, ESPs lose their jobs.’ If you look at the whole picture, then you learn that different aspects affect different people in this profession. Ultimately, it affects everyone.”
Packing board meetings, organizing online
John Staab, who worked in building maintenance at Pine Hill before being hired as an NJEA field representative, had insight into ESPs’ experience with privatization.
“I know what it feels like to be an ESP and have your job threatened,” he said. “I totally understand the fear, the anger, and the concern that I was pushing too hard and could lose my job if I continue to push. Many times, our ESP members don’t want to push for the same reason. They need their colleagues to rally around and support them.”
One of the major issues with fighting bad education decisions is a perceived power imbalance. Many members believe the board of education has all the power. One of the keys to the South Jersey Anti-Privatization Coalition’s success is that they believe in their power and know how to wield it.
“I saw how an outsider speaking to the board with facts and without fear of retribution got results,” John Staab noted.
“ESPs felt alone until they found that there are so many other people dealing with the same fears and anxieties of being privatized,” Antonelli said. “This group gave them a place to connect so they can see they are not alone. It really is a lifeline. Members reach out to the coalition through the Facebook group and everyone starts jumping in to provide assistance.”
Building the team
“We had the very first meeting at the ESP overnight workshop in Gloucester County,” John Staab said. “We had a breakout to talk about ideas with the members. We tested our ideas during a privatization fight in Deptford and many more people jumped in from other counties who were ESP advocates. It didn’t have a name yet; it was just a bunch of people doing things.”
They created a task force with staff. It included an NJEA field representative from each office in the southern region. “I was brand new, so I wanted to make sure I had experienced people working with me,” John Staab said. “I looped in people from different divisions, with different areas of expertise.”
The NJEA staff team that John Staab and Bob Antonelli convened grew to include Nancy Holmes, Myron Plotkin, Greg Yordy, Jim Jamison, Christy Kanaby, Mike Kaminski, Caroline Tantum and others. They initially met with county presidents to roll out the team’s ideas, get feedback, and build support. The county presidents were enthusiastic.
NJEA consultants also played a major role in the coalition, including Lou Randazzo, now an NJEA field representative, and Anthony Cappello.
At the first meeting with members, they decided to create a Facebook group to help them organize and communicate. Someone suggested it, and Colette Staab had it built within minutes and began inviting people. Prospective members must answer several questions and page administrators verify membership to ensure as much as possible that only NJEA members are able to access the group. NJEA members across the state can request to join the “South Jersey Anti Privatization Coalition.”
“Not everyone likes Facebook, so we instituted different ways to communicate,” John Staab said.
Beth Parker, administrative assistant in the Mullica Hill NJEA UniServ Regional Office, created a list that grew to include more than 700 members interested in fighting privatization. The group included members from across several counties and included almost every job description. Many teachers got involved because they had experienced the devastating impact privatization had on their school communities, and because they truly valued the important work their ESP colleagues performed.
“We originally had contacts in each county in the south but we found that there was a core group of people who were just warriors,” John Staab said. “We ultimately made them the captains. They were the ones stirring the pot, getting information and spreading the word. We tried to pick a professional staff member and an ESP member in each county; it didn’t always happen that way, but it often did.
“To activate the coalition, members have to contact their NJEA field representative and then they can contact the network. We ask the local association what they need. The privatization coalition concentrates solely on external organizing and research. A lot of the things that they do, the members of that local association might not be aware of. For example, our members are really good at finding things on the internet.”
For example, during a privatization battle in Cape May County, members of the coalition went online and discovered that a superintendent intent on privatization was on the zoning board in the town and that her taxes were $15,000 less than her neighbors. They shared that information with the community, calling into question the superintendent’s motivation.
In Evesham, the board wanted to drop paraprofessionals’ hours so they would lose benefits. The coalition showed up before a board meeting and held a rally. People were standing in the roadway with signs. They stopped every board member on their way into the meeting and talked to them and had them talk face-to-face with the Evesham paraprofessionals.
Not only did the Evesham members thank NJEA and the coalition for their efforts, they asked how they could help others.
“We supported each other to develop the coalition,” Antonelli said. “But really we gave the members the tools and they built it. Because every privatization fight is different, the strategies change every time. There’s no manual on the shelf that we can pull from. It helps that there’s no one person in charge. They’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other. Schools can be so hierarchical; the coalition sees everyone as equal and gives them a chance to work together in a different way than perhaps they’re used to seeing.”
“The freedom to do what they want gets them excited and motivated to do things,” John Staab noted. “It’s fun for us, too, because we can be creative and try new things. It was important for these members to feel that they have power and it made them stronger members, while allowing them to flex their muscles and influence their union. They now have the ownership that if you’re not happy with something, you have to get involved and try to change it.”
An important element is packing board meetings with well-informed, passionate, and fearless advocates who live outside the district, protecting them from retribution.
“Once this started happening and members in affected districts saw people coming from other districts, they shared information with them about what was going on, strengthening the coalition members’ comments when they got to the microphone. In turn, after these members were helped by the coalition, they turned around and returned the favor by attending board meetings and becoming outspoken anti-privatization activists in other districts,” John Staab said.
“I’ve got to be honest; the work was tiring,” John Staab said. “These were long days for our members who get up early to drive kids to school. After the board meetings, we’d all be so fired up, it was hard to come down. But we really felt like the NJEA staff and the members were one. We were all in this together; and we all felt that way.”
Colette Staab has practical advice for advocates. “Balancing advocacy with parenting, work, and real life is challenging,” Colette Staab said. “No one is going to be mad at you for not going to every board meeting. Go, bring a crew, go to dinner before or after. The point is building that teamwork and the connections that help us support each other.”
During the pandemic, and before the ESP bills were passed, privatization fights were still occurring; they just happened over Zoom.
“It’s difficult to fight privatization in a Zoom meeting,” Antonelli said. “But boards that allow people to speak hear from people beyond just the people in their district. More than 250 people got on the Zoom at the last privatization battle. The coalition members are so dedicated; they will go anywhere, anytime. Whether it’s a Zoom meeting or they have to drive there. Everyone in the coalition has been affected by privatization and they’ve had enough.”
Activated to pass Job Justice bills
“Chrissy Kosar and Donna Rose are two fierce anti-privatization activists who are both bus drivers,” John Staab said. “Because of their schedules, they were up early and had time during the day to reach out and talk to people about these issues before they did their after-school runs. Thanks to them, the bus drivers in the Kingsway school district became extremely active. Chrissy and Donna met a bus driver from Kingsway and they ended up visiting legislators to talk to them about the ESP Job Justice bills. They were instrumental in getting votes for those bills,” John Staab said.
The battle to pass the ESP Job Justice bills went on for years. The bills had passed numerous times in previous administrations, but never made it to the finish line.
In an understatement, Kosar said that she and her fellow activists worked “very hard” to get the ESP bills passed.
“We had a couple of rallies and got a meeting with Sen. Fred Madden,” Kosar recalled. “He promised to sign on to the two bills but he didn’t. So I kind of made his life misery.”
“I would get on the radio at 9 a.m. and ask the drivers to meet me at Madden’s office after our run,” Kosar said. “We trolled the internet and discovered that with his pensions and stipends, he was pulling in a significant salary. We pushed hard against that.”
“We did a big Christmas thing with county leaders and some NJEA staff and we rallied in front of Madden’s office,” Kosar said. “Mike Kaminski dressed up as Santa Claus with two candy canes stuck in the ground to look like two J’s for Job Justice. We took him a bag of coal because he’d been naughty and hadn’t kept his word. It was funny, but it was serious.”
“An aide came out and brought me in and asked me to meet with the senator, and he signed onto the bills that day,” Kosar said. “A couple of months later, those bills passed.”
Growing into the future
Even as they celebrate an extraordinary and hard-fought victory, Antonelli is concerned that the privatization fight is not over. “Even as the law has changed, we there is still danger to our school employees. We have to find new ways to fight privatization. And the thing is, this coalition always shows up.”
Antonelli calls on more teachers to get involved in the anti-privatization fight. “Teachers need to speak up and declare that they can’t do this work without support staff. They have seen firsthand the impact that unqualified, unprofessional, $10-a-day workers can have in our schools. Many teachers have joined the coalition, but many more should be speaking out for their colleagues.”
The coalition members feel strongly that they need to build on what they have created to ensure that ESP members are heard in their union, at the bargaining table, and with administration. John Staab sees the network changing to focus more on helping ESP members deal with contract issues, internal politics, privatization and promoting the profession.
Kosar, who is now the Gloucester County Education Association president, has big dreams for her ESP colleagues. The coalition, which is changing its name to the ESP Action Network (ESPAN), will help guide associations and develop best practices to fully embrace ESP issues. Kosar envisions all-inclusive associations adopting a dual leadership model, with co-presidents composed of an ESP and certified representative. She’s working with ESP to take on leadership positions in their local, county, statewide, and national associations.
“The pandemic really showed the value of what ESP do,” Kosar says. “Bus drivers worked with cafeteria staff to deliver food; special needs students were able to get food and supplies delivered right to their door. Our associations donated much-needed food and we’ve kept that up for more than a year because the need is very real in our communities. And we see that because no one is more connected to our communities than ESP.”
Kosar is calling on NJEA to create a dedicated division for educational support professionals.
“NJEA must work with the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to develop free members’ only trainings that provide accredited programs for ESPs,” Kosar said. “By establishing a certification program that makes them invaluable to school districts, we will be growing a pool of highly qualified, highly employable staff who will be well-compensated for the services they offer. Accelerated by the impact of the pandemic and the Great Resignation, districts are now seeing how their treatment of support staff is making it extremely difficult to fill essential positions.
“They need to take this moment to invest in their employees and recognize the failure of outsourcing!”
As ESPAN evolves, Colette Staab is eager to see their practices expand to other subjects.
“We were trying to engage people on health and safety issues, even before the pandemic,” Colette Staab said. “We were working on mercury in the floors, lead in the water, mold, and other health and safety issues in schools. I didn’t get as much passion for that as I expected. But I do feel that this model could be applied there. In addition, we have seen the social justice coalition using this model.”
“With a lot of these issues, it’s more effective for NJEA to be hands-off: it has to be locally driven and locally run,” John Staab said.
Those who created the coalition find it to be one of the most rewarding movements they have been part of during their careers, and they invite others to share in it.
“The people who get involved in this group are tired of losing,” Antonelli said. “They ask, ‘how do we start winning again?’ This group can’t guarantee a win, but they can guarantee that you will not fight alone.”