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10-21-12 In the News - Take on Newark Teachers Contract & Reducing State Takeover bill Introduced
Star Ledger column - Moran: Newark teacher union's chief backs groundbreaking reform

The Record - Lawmakers seek to end N.J. takeover of schools

Star Ledger column - Moran: Newark teacher union's chief backs groundbreaking reform

By Tom Moran/ The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger on October 21, 2012 at 8:22 AM

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Joe Del Grosso is 65 years old now, slowed by Crohn’s disease, with a ring of thick silver hair circling a bald top.

He remembers his militant days as young man, when he began the climb that landed him at the top of the teachers union in Newark.

“I was in jail for three months,” he says.

His crime was joining a strike in 1970. But he was never caught for shooting out the car windows of the school board president, something he did over and over to vent his rage.

“I saw him later at a bar,” Del Grosso says. “And I said, ‘You’re the son of a bitch who sent me to jail.’ And he said, ‘You’re the son of a bitch who blew my windows out.’ So we decided to have a drink, us two sons of bitches. And we became friends.”

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History may be repeating itself. Because after decades of battling one superintendent after another, Del Grosso last week smoked a peace pipe with Superintendent Cami Anderson by signing a groundbreaking contract that could unleash a tidal wave of reform in the city.

The contract gives his teachers the chance to earn $5,000 bonuses if they can show they are highly effective, and double that if they agree to teach in a struggling school. Teachers who fill shortages in subjects such as math and science can get another $2,500.

The flip side is that it denies raises to the worst teachers until they are removed under the new tenure law. That’s merit pay, and for most union leaders, it is taboo.

But Del Grosso was willing to do it, and to stake his career on it, because teachers will finally have a seat at the table when those evaluations are made. No other district in New Jersey has granted teachers that power.

Del Grosso has no problem with the notion of rewarding the best and punishing the worst — as long as the judgment is right. And having a teacher at the table helps ensure that.

Despite what you may have heard, he says, most teachers are ready to make this leap.

“The teachers who come in early and stay late, and take the job seriously, are offended by the teachers who don’t,” he says. “They are the silent majority, and I think they will overwhelmingly vote for a contract that involves them in their own destiny.”

This is explosive stuff. Workers in the private sector take it for granted that their performance will affect their pay, and that if they screw up badly, they will be fired. Teachers, like many other public employees, have been protected against that harsh, real-world stuff.

Del Grosso believes that most teachers see themselves as professionals and don’t want to live in this bubble. They want to get more money for doing a good job. And if a lazy underperformer can’t improve, they want the district to draw a line. The kids who don’t learn in one classroom, after all, become a burden in the next.

“No way a teacher with integrity wants to see someone in the profession who demeans the profession,” he says.

Now, he has to convince his teachers to ratify the contract next week. And this deal, with the blessing of Gov. Chris Christie, greases that effort the old-fashioned way — with lots of cash.

The average Newark teacher makes $67,000, according to the union. He or she will get retroactive raises for the past two years, and bumps during the next three years of 3.8 percent, 4.7 percent and 5.4 percent. The bonuses are on top of that.

The contract also allows teachers in designated turnaround schools to earn more by working longer days and school years, a change that has repeatedly shown to boost student performance.

The district is being secretive about financial details, but says the cost of all this will be about $100 million — half of it from foundations, mostly the one financed by Face­book founder Mark Zuckerberg. Other Jersey districts will have a hard time following this lead.

And Del Grosso’s union is part of the American Federation of Teachers, led by Randi Weingarten, which represents only a handful of districts in the state. The rival New Jersey Education Association is much bigger and more reactionary. They are against these changes.

But imagine if Newark teachers embrace this and it works. It is hard to see how that success won’t spread. And that’s possible, mainly because Del Grosso was willing to break tradition and try something new.

The radical buried inside him, it seems, is still kicking.

 

The Record - Lawmakers seek to end N.J. takeover of schools

Saturday, October 20, 2012 BY NICK CLUNN

Paterson would gain control of its public school system for the first time in 21 years under legislation introduced by Democrats that also would limit future state takeovers to five years, lawmakers announced Friday.

"It's time for the state to admit that the prolonged takeover of a local school district is a failed experiment, and it's time to return the school districts that have languished under state control back to the people in those school districts," said state Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, who has sponsored the bill with Nellie Pou, D-North Haledon.

Newark and Jersey City are also under some level of state oversight — a program that has frustrated leaders in all three cities, particularly as urban schools continue to struggle despite decades of intervention by the Department of Education. Patersonhas been under state control since 1991 and continues to have six of the lowest-performing schools in the state.

Since that time, the state's third-largest district — with 30,000 students — has been led by a state-appointed superintendent accountable to Trenton instead of an elected school board, which only acts as an advisory panel.

The bill would immediately end state control of the three districts and again empower the Patersonboard to vote on budgets, hires, policies and other major decisions. It would also give trustees the option of keeping the state-appointed superintendent and prevent the state from intervening for another five years.

Paterson public schools spokeswoman Terry Corallo acknowledged receiving an email requesting comment but did not send a response Friday afternoon.

Limiting future takeovers of public school districts to five years would drive results, Pou said.

"While there may be legitimate reasons for the state to temporarily take over the functions of a local school district, such an agreement must come with an expiration date," she said.

Christopher Irving, president of the Patersonschool board, said local control would make school leaders more accountable and end an approach that hasn't produced the intended results.

"After 20 years, you have to admit you've failed," he said.

A spokeswoman from the state Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

State control has been a sore spot for Irving and other members of the Paterson board.

At a public meeting in February, Irving asked state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to cease state control in seven months if the board met certain benchmarks.

But Cerf brushed the appeal aside. He said such a rapid transition would harm students while acknowledging that the board should ultimately be in charge of city schools.

"There is, at minimum, irony in asking a board to demonstrate its competence, and then disable it from exercising its competence," Cerf said at the rare meeting in Paterson.

For the bill to pass, supporters need to persuade their colleagues in the suburbs that any district is at risk of being targeted for a state takeover, Irving said. An appeal also should be made to conservatives who want to limit the role of government, he said.

"I hope they can convince their non-urban counterparts to understand that it can start with Patersonand move to Paramusin a heartbeat," Irving said.

A 1987 law allows the state Board of Education to "create a school district under full state intervention" whenever the commissioner finds that a local district has failed to ensure a "thorough and efficient" education.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of New Jersey becoming the first state to take control of a local district — the public schools in Jersey City. In urging the state board to authorize a takeover of Paterson schools four years later in 1991, the state education commissioner at the time said Paterson hadn't met state standards for student achievement since 1976.

Email:clunn@northjersey.com

 


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