a matter of time

Newark Teachers Union calls for end to extended-school-day programs, citing contract violations

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon called the extended-day programs "a failure."

The head of the Newark Teachers Union is calling on the district to abolish school-improvement efforts that ask teachers at certain schools to work longer hours in return for extra pay.

About 30 district schools have extended days, which teachers must agree to in writing each year. According to an email that the union president sent to the district’s interim superintendent on Tuesday, some principals pressured teachers to sign those agreements this week before they have had a chance to look for positions at other schools.

But the union chief, John Abeigon, has decided to use that grievance to renew past calls to dismantle all of the district’s extended-time programs entirely. In his email to Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, Abeigon called the programs “the last vestiges of a failed reform model” enacted by Cami Anderson, a former state-appointed superintendent with whom the union clashed bitterly.

Now that Newark’s elected school board has regained control of the schools, Abeigon said the district should restore an after-school initiative favored by the union and scrap the extended-day model.

“It’s a failure,” Abeigon said in an interview. “Now we’re trying to take advantage of the return to local control to get rid of it.”

The extended time was built into a 2012 contract negotiated by Anderson and the teachers union, which was hailed nationally as a model of district-labor cooperation. Under the contract, the superintendent could designate a limited number of so-called “Turnaround” schools whose academic performance needed to improve. In exchange for a $3,000 bonus, teachers who signed an annual agreement would work up to an hour longer each day and attend training sessions in the summer and on some weekends. The schools also were freed from some contract rules around scheduling, making them similar to charter schools that generally are not restricted by teachers contracts.

Some schools were insulted by the Turnaround label, sparking student protests. In some cases, teachers who refused to sign the agreements were transferred to other Turnaround schools, where they reportedly operated on different schedules than teachers who had signed on.

Still, about two-thirds of surveyed teachers said the extra time with students was valuable, according to a 2016 study commissioned by the district that looked at schools — including Turnaround schools and those in another school-improvement program, called “Renew” — where teachers agreed to extended schedules. Last year, the union and district negotiated a new teachers contract that goes to 2019 and includes both the Turnaround and Renew programs.

In response to Abeigon’s call Tuesday to do away with extended schedules, district officials pointed to last year’s agreement.

“The district signed a contract in 2017 with the Newark Teachers Union that included the opportunity for schools to provide extended learning time, because we believe that more learning time can help improve learning outcomes for students,” said Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, in a statement. “We look forward to working with the NTU to continue to ensure that this portion of the contract is implemented in a way that allows for all of our students and educators to be successful.”

The union has long raised doubts about whether the extra time is actually improving school performance. But the latest outcry appeared to be prompted less by fundamental concerns about the model than about how it is being carried out.

According to the union, some school administrators have revised the “election to work agreements” that outline teachers’ responsibilities at extended-time schools without consulting the union. Teachers would likely welcome some of the revisions — such as fewer trainings during the summer or on Saturdays — but union officials said they must still sign off on any changes.

In addition, some principals ordered teachers to sign next school year’s agreements this week. The union said that is unfair because the district has not yet hosted its annual job fair, meaning teachers are being asked to commit to stay at their current schools without being able to explore other options first.

As evidence, the union supplied an email from the principal of McKinley Elementary School to her staff saying that teachers who did not sign the agreements by Friday “will be removed from the McKinley Roster” and that teachers who do sign “obviously can’t change your mind to transfer later on.”

Another email provided by the union showed that the staff at Luis Muñoz Marin School for Social Justice had been told to sign their agreements by this Monday. However, they were informed Tuesday that the agreement had been modified and were told to sign the revised agreements by the end of that day.

Marin is part of the Renew program, while McKinley is a Turnaround school. Neither principal responded to emails seeking comment.

In his message to Interim Superintendent Gregory — which was titled “Turnaround Schools Dead: End the EWA threats now!” — Abeigon said that multiple principals had sent similarly “coercive” emails to teachers in recent weeks. He said the changes to the agreements violated the teachers contract. And he called on Gregory to “discuss replacing” the extended-time model with an after-school program that would only target students who need extra support.

“Dozens of your dedicated employees are crying out for help and your leadership,” Abeigon wrote, “as their backs are up against a wall you have the power to take down.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”