By Kevin Parker
It was an indication of the changed climate in the Deptford Public School District when both the outgoing interim superintendent and the incoming superintendent spoke to members of the Deptford Education Association (DEA) prior to their ratification meeting on Wednesday, June 19. The former assured members of their legacy in the lives of students; the latter thanked them for their professionalism while working without a contract. When negotiations started more than three years before, it would have been difficult to imagine such an ending.
However extraordinary it may be, the ending was neither luck nor accident. Instead, it was the culmination of years of dogged negotiations, ceaseless organizing and activism, and effective community outreach.
As soon as it became apparent there would be no quick resolution to negotiations, DEA set about organizing members. In addition to specific job actions aimed at the administration, DEA was intent on raising the visibility of its contract dispute. There were signs for lawns, signs for cars and T-shirts for everyone. In both March and November of 2017, DEA held large rallies prior to negotiation sessions. DEA was not alone. Gloucester County Education Association President Sue Clark called upon other NJEA members in the county to show solidarity.
While the obvious purpose of all of these actions was to demonstrate the association’s resolve, there was a more direct purpose for the association itself: gauging member participation. DEA President Lou Randazzo explained that strategy at the ratification meeting.
“Yes, those things show solidarity to the board and the superintendent, but to us they show how many members are committed,” Randazzo said.
This helped the association determine what job actions to take as well as how firmly to hold to its negotiating positions. Without them, it would have been impossible to conduct effective job actions or secure such a settlement.
“A lot of us are Deptford born, bred. I graduated from Deptford. My kids go to Deptford. I love Deptford schools.” – Charlie Hargrove, DEA member.
In March of 2017, DEA suddenly faced a privatization threat to classroom aides. As NJEA UniServ representatives set about challenging the district’s bidding process, DEA mobilized members and parents to attend and, more importantly, speak at the March 16 board of education meeting. For more than two hours, member after member, parent after parent, and even student after student, told of the importance of classroom aides and their indispensable place in Deptford’s schools.
Redirecting the communication methods and social media network established for negotiations, DEA generated an imposing turnout. The association also produced a video of board members’ anti-privatization statements from Meet the Candidate Forums hosted by DEA when board members were running for a seat on the board. This video was spread through social media in advance of the meeting. By the time board members sat in front of a packed auditorium at Blackwood Terrace School, they were already under intense pressure.
After the exhaustive testimony, the board tabled action on privatization until the following Monday where, as the meeting continued into the early hours of Tuesday, the board voted against it.
“The DEA brought out many, many reasons to oppose privatization, and we spoke individually with each of the Board members,” said DEA member Ann Marie Cooney. “We had a rally that showed we meant business. We proved (that) people who are local care, that it’s from the heart. Our union did that.”
“We are thrilled the board recognizes the harms posed by privatization. In rejecting this, they put their priorities exactly where they should be—with the kids of Deptford schools.” – Lou Randazzo, DEA president
Looking to expand their outreach even further into the local community and beyond the board office, DEA members targeted the Deptford Township Council. Picketing preceded the council meeting. Once the meeting began, members testified on their concerns. As DEA member Lee Henry put it, “We just need your help.” DEA member and Deptford parent, Michelle Fisler stated bluntly, “We do not feel supported by the district we so humbly serve.”
In response, Mayor Paul Medany acknowledged the primacy of public schools in Deptford’s future prosperity: “Nobody wants this township to do better than [those of us on council], and the schools drive the township.”
He also exhorted the audience to act, “Don’t think we don’t know what’s going on,” he concluded. “Do your part and go to the polls. If you think things are being mismanaged, you need to go out and vote.”
“It’s been very disheartening these last few years with no contract. We’ve seen class sizes increase. They’ve cut positions. We’ve had a lot of really good staff members who have left the district—to go to other districts—because they’re so frustrated with the situation here.” – Christina Fox, DEA Member
DEA members and parents followed the mayor’s advice, and following board elections in November 2017, things did indeed begin to change. Several key administrative positions—most notably the business administrator and the superintendent—have been replaced. The district made no attempt to privatize its aides in this year’s budget deliberations, and in June, the board of education and DEA settled their contract. None of this would have been possible without the benefits of organizing for negotiations.
“DEA members approached their contract as the means and organizing as the end. In doing so, they not only secured a fair contract, but also won community support by successfully staving off privatization and forcing needed change in administration,” said Tony Cappello, a Region 2 UniServ consultant who assisted DEA in their negotiations.
With new support from the Murphy administration in Trenton and new leadership in the district, DEA members can now look forward to the process of rebuilding.
Kevin Parker is an NJEA Communications Consultant and an English teacher at Washington Township High School in Gloucester County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.