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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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Rally for NJ Working Families (Aug 20th)

By far my favorite picture from today’s rally outside of 2 Cedar Street, NAACP-Newark President Deborah Smith-Gregory leads the charge and keeps the momentum. It was a great image of union unity and I look forward to keeping the pressure on Newark Public Schools to provide all workers with a fair contract.

More than one union that serves NPS has gone years without a contract or pay increases. Cafeteria workers, electricians, custodians are among the workers whose income has remained stagnant while cost of living steadily increases. A great job has been done in painting us union members as selfish and overpaid, but this is not reality.

The people who attended today’s rally are Newark residents. They are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents. They are people with responsibilities–both at work and in their homes. If workers take care of their responsibilities at work, there should be nothing that hinders them from taking care of their homes. That’s only fair.

Below is the speech I wrote for the rally. I didn’t get to read it because we were running out of time, but I did recite Langston Hughes’s poem. Enjoy!

Get up! Get down!
Newark is a union town!

My name is Leah Owens and I’m a proud member of the Newark Teachers Union, and an even prouder member of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, also known as NEW Caucus. We are a group of teachers, school psychologists, guidance counselors, clerks and other staff who know that we can not have educational justice without social and, particularly, economic justice. We also know this fight is difficult. It made me think of the poem, “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes. The first part goes:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.

Raise your hand if you can relate. Raise your hand if life ain’t been no crystal stair.

What we’re doing right now is called class unity. We are acknowledging the commonality in our economic condition. We are all workers in this factory called Newark Public Schools. The boss, she don’t give a damn about you or me. It’s all about the bottom line–but we have to have our own bottom line.

Our bottom line is: stop closing schools!

Our bottom line is: stop union busting!

Our bottom line is: fair contracts!

Our bottom line is: no privatization of public goods!

The second half of that same poem provides hope. It goes:

But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair

We’ve turned some corners and reached a landing. We’re heading into the dark where there ain’t been no light, but we won’t turn back. We won’t set down and we won’t fall–not til we get to the top of that crystal stair.

 
 
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