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Cami Created Chaos: Reflections on the 2015 NPS Budget Hearing

In the nearly empty auditorium of Belmont-Runyon Elementary, Newark Public Schools district staff leisurely finished the setup for the evening’s public budget hearing. There were a sea of blue seats; walking in, you had your pick.There were almost more security guards than audience members, even when the meeting commenced. The total count throughout the night barely reached forty. If you were looking for some place to hide, this meeting was the wrong place. Assistant Superintendent Brad Haggerty set the tone of the district’s presentation by announcing, “Despite decreasing revenues, great things can be accomplished.” Rain pounded on the roof of the auditorium. Stormy weather. A perfect metaphor for the district’s budget woes.

Several news articles covered the meeting. You can read those here, here, and here. But none of these did the speakers from the audience justice. Altogether, about ten of us lined up to speak, and we all urged for the advisory board members to vote no to the budget. Among those speakers, NEW Caucus–the social justice caucus of the Newark Teachers Union–was there. Both Branden Rippey, Chair, and I spoke up. Here’s a version of what I had to say with some added analysis (because on your own blog you get more than three minutes to speak!).

It must be repeated that we urge the advisory board to vote no to this budget. We also need to remember who created this mess in the first place: Governor Christie and, by way of him, Superintendent Cami Anderson. Governor Christie has been underfunding public education in New Jersey for years, so much that he was taken to court by the Education Law Center and ordered to pay back $500 million in aid that he cut illegally. In Newark, specifically, we see two particular situations that feed this district’s budget deficit: universal enrollment and the educators without placement (EWP) pool.

The universal enrollment system was the nail in the coffin of a self-fulfilling prophecy. At past public budget hearings, revenue projections continually showed a greater payment to charter schools coming out of the General Fund. A school district under local control would immediately strategize as to how they would stop this from happening. However, this district’s administration behaved differently. This administration instead implemented a universal enrollment system that makes it easier for families to choose charter schools, thus exacerbating the declining enrollment of NPS. How does that make sense? Oh no! More families are choosing charters. Let’s figure out a way to help more families choose charters. Huh? It begs the question: what is the plan for how small this district is going to get? 30 schools? 20 schools? 10 schools? None? Is the goal 100% charterization?

There are educators without placement teaching in classes where they are certified, but they are not being put on the school’s line budget. That refutes the administration’s argument that these are “bad teachers” who should not be in front of children, which is something that was said several times during the presentation. These teachers have been stigmatized, demeaned, and disrespected. It is appalling to think that the district’s demand for these teachers to “jump” is going to yield a response of “how high?” These individuals are trying to protect their livelihood. They have served children and families in Newark for years, some decades, but this is the created situation in which they find themselves. Cami created this chaos. There never had to be a EWP pool.

The data presented about the EWP pool was from two years ago, when there were only 159 teachers in the pool. What are the demographics of the current 243 teachers in the pool? Demographics such as tenure status, number of years in the district, sex, age, content area/grade, race/ethnicity, annual evaluation. Through an analysis, I wouldn’t be surprised if a pattern of discrimination were uncovered in one or more of these categories.

The Superintendent has requested from the NJDOE an equivalency waiver to be able to implement performance-based layoffs. The argument was that performance-based layoffs, as opposed to quality-blind layoffs, would keep more effective and highly effective teachers in the district. In other words, tenure and seniority are in the way of the corporate reform agenda to privatize public education. Their argument is that tenure and seniority have caused this problem of spending. Wrong! Cami created the pool. She created this madness. Their argument is that the waiver will “save” $10 million. No, abiding by the law and ceasing the attempts to union bust will save us money. Stability in this district will save us money. Corporate education reformers do not want to pay for quality and expertise. They have debased the teaching profession to a set of skills that anyone can master if they just follow the steps. Teaching is much more nuanced than that!

Rigidity and standardization are not going to create the kind of citizens we need are children to become. But, it makes perfect sense to someone who, consciously or unconsciously, wants to keep a permanent underclass in this world. A group of people who will complete the mindless tasks of pushing buttons and swiping screens, at least until those functions become automated, too. PARCC’s purpose is much like my Organic Chemistry classes in college. Sure, you learned a lot that would potentially help you progress in your journey to become a doctor; the information was relevant. But in reality their purpose was to weed people out. To determine who would go on to the next level. And that is what the PARCC is for, too.

If Cami is able to get this waiver, it will set a precedent across the state for other districts–particularly other state controlled districts like Camden–to also request a waiver allowing them to bypass tenure and seniority protections. Why do we have tenure and seniority? To protect teachers from being arbitrarily fired. Because of respect for experience in the teaching profession. Why is tenure and seniority being attacked? Because Wall Street doesn’t want to pay its fair share. The argument is that veteran teachers cost too much in salary and especially benefits. But one way these costs can be covered is through higher tax rates on corporations that rake in billions in profits. There is no reason CEOs need to “earn” 350 times more than their average employees earn except for insurmountable greed. This greed does not recognize human faces, only dollar signs and the bottom line.

What does this mean with the district’s contract with TFA and other teacher recruiting programs? Will new teachers continue to be hired en masse?

Last, how are we going to get rid of this fatalistic approach to budgeting? Every year, for the last five years or so, we’ve come to the table beaten. We’ve worked from the lens that “the writing is on the wall” and “woe is me.” We need to truly build a budget from the bottom up. What do children need? That’s where we start. Not with a number that we have to fit everything within. And, after we create this bottom up budget, we have to organize to fight for it.

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From the Run Radio

Just to get by

Just to get by

Just to get by

Just to get by

Do you really feel brand new?

Radio stations taking requests

Got me head nodding

Not wanting to get out my truck

Then it hits me,

What the fuck?

I usually drive in silence

Not wanting to hear the ear violence

Now you want to get conscious

In the aftermath of yet another tragedy

But only as long as it takes for me to shower and get dressed

Come back down and it’s the same nonsense

I know I can

I know I can

Be what I want to be

Be what I want to be

How hard are we working?

And I’m not talking about twerking

These incidents are no coincidence

It’s not happenstance but a clear plan

To create disaster and shock

Keep you shackled to the block

Forces unseen, yet to follow the laws of motion written by justice

It’s movement time.

Be. Be. Be.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2014 in poem, reflection

 

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What’s Up with Newark?: Unfiltered Discussion

YPOC Part 1 What's Up With NewarkFacing the near-Antarctic temperatures, I walked over to Bethany Baptist Church this morning to attend the What’s Up with Newark? roundtable discussions. I am a member of the host committee for Young People Organizing for Change, a coalition of young professionals who are targeting a particular population to get more involved in their communities, and the group that organized this morning’s event. In Newark, there tend to be islands of political activity. Any young person trying to eat usually is attached to one camp or another, and their talents and ideas can get overlooked. But this morning, that wasn’t the case. We were speaking loud and clear about what we see as the most pertinent issues. Unfiltered. No sugarcoat.

Articulate. Intelligent. Moving. These are the words that first come to mind when I reflect on the conversations of which I was a part. My area of expertise is what has come to be known as urban education, so I was super-ready to contribute to the “The Miseducation of Education” conversation. I ended up doing more listening than speaking (though if you know me, that’s not unusual for me); however, this time it was because I was drafted to take notes. There were a few other educators at the table, but most were speaking from different roles. Listening to my peers, they were hitting all of the major points of contention in education debates today—the role of charter schools in public education systems, culturally relevant teacher preparation, the importance of engaging parents in their children’s education, and more.

A blog will always be a personal platform, so I get my chance to speak regardless! On a serious note though, an observation I made through the education discussion is that, when discussing the dysfunctional public education system and proposing solutions, we tend to have a narrow point of view as to what these solutions could possibly be. For example, I am not convinced that we need to continue to follow this combination factory-agrarian model of education that still exists. Factory in the sense that students are shuffled along from one grade to the next solely based on age and agrarian in that most public school students have two months off in the summer. I know we haven’t strayed from the plantation system figuratively, but I don’t literally see any kids picking cotton in Newark. Internships during the last year or two of high school and over the summers would be real career-readiness, and we’ll expand our notion of what comprises institutionalized education at the same time.

My observation actually applies to the other two discussions—“Poverty=Crime” and “The Cycle of a Dollar”—as well. At one point, we were discussing the possible impact of the decriminalization of marijuana. Essentially, the individual drug seller would be displaced by the institution. Again, riveting dialogue—real talk, as they say—and it gets at a deeper discussion of market forces and other economic concepts I only know on a superficial level, but we still remained within the realm of capitalism. Small businesses and keeping our dollars in our communities could be approached from other political-economic perspectives. Maybe there exists a shade of capitalism that could serve our communities’ needs, but we have to acknowledge that it is an inherently unequal system. A strong structure of checks and balances would have to exist; otherwise, any solutions proposed out of capitalism will ultimately perpetuate a class system with some group shouldering an inordinate amount of burden.

At the next event, our mini-conference on February 15th “Empowering Change Agents,” I look forward to the drafting of an agenda. Carving out a space just for the discussion itself is vital; in organizing, this is when we can build relationships and develop common understandings. But taking action—there’s nothing like taking action. And today was another experience in that continued renewal of my activist spirit.

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2014 in Newark, reflection

 

A Funeral I’ll Never Forget

NAVC_Funeral_102713Walking into a funeral home on Mt. Prospect Avenue was the last way I thought I would be starting my summer of 2008. But there I was, surrounded by colleagues of Barringer High School, remembering the life of Sujeiti Ocasio.

I don’t have one negative memory of Sujeiti. She was funny, upbeat, and ready to find her place in the world. In fact, the last memory I have of her was her coming by my classroom with a friend to ask if I could help her write her resume. Mind you, I was in the middle of teaching a class and I knew it wasn’t her lunch period, but my normally strict, serious teaching persona responded, “Go back there and log in. Then, I’ll come show you how to do it, but you have to be quiet.” She was appreciative, and after I showed her how to find and use a template in Word, she and her friend kept busy for the remainder of the period. I checked in with her a few times, looked it over when she was done, and gave her some paper to print out a few copies.

I found solace in this memory as I sat in the overflow room of the funeral home. Quiet as summer rain, the volume never reached above a solemn hum. Family and friends whispered to others sitting close, or didn’t speak at all. Each time someone new walked in, I would look up, trying my best to smile with my eyes. These were the only muscles in my face that seemed to work. The entire experience was surreal. How could this have happened? Damn, she was a good girl. Sujeiti didn’t deserve to die.

All of this, and more, rushed into my mind as I sat at the table waiting to introduce myself at tonight’s Newark Anti-Violence Coalition Meet and Greet. Almost everyone had a personal story to tell about how gun violence had taken the life of a family member or friend. During open discussion, individuals shared the work they have been doing and offered ideas for further work to be done. This includes ideas for how we can attack the issue of senseless violence at its root.  I think member Natasha Allen said it well: “You’ve heard the saying that some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Well, some people are born with a sword in their hand, and they think that’s the only way to go about solving problems.” We cannot allow our children to be exposed to violence, sex, drugs as a norm, then turn around and expect them to act any differently than what they see. Whether one ends up in the role of victim or perpetrator, we must recognize how the prevalence of violence in the media and in our communities is a detriment to the psyche.

Sujeiti was killed within weeks of the day she came by my classroom. Murdered at her own home, at her own graduation party, by another young woman, Nicole Guyette, who should have graduated that night as well. It was a senseless killing over name calling. The kind of name calling I see and hear on a daily basis inside schools. Every instance should be taken seriously. I’ve already seen how it can end.

Each day is an opportunity to start anew. Tomorrow is no different, except that some courageous people who love this city have organized a symbolic event to help us heal our communities and say enough is enough: The Funeral to Bury Violence in Newark. At 11am, five processions will originate from each of the wards, culminating at Lincoln Park at 1pm where the funeral will take place. Tomorrow, I will walk for Sujeiti AND for Nicole because they are both victims of our over-aggressive society. I don’t want any more stories to tell about someone I knew. And I hope you don’t either.

PROCESSION STARTING LOCATIONS

North Ward: La Casa de Don Pedro, 39 Broadway

South Ward: Valley Fair

East Ward: Riverview Terrace

West Ward: Sanford Ave & S. Orange Ave, Sacred Heart Church

Central Ward: CityPlex Theater, Springfield Avenue

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2013 in life, Newark, reflection

 
 
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