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11-10-11 Education and Related Issues in the News
njspotlight.com - Education Department Working Flat Out to Finish Federal Waiver…Critics contend too little time taken to gather public input on No Child Left Behind waiver application

The Record - State rejects teacher contract "...The acting state education commissioner has ruled that the 2010-11 year of the Ramsey teachers' contract broke state law in a decision underscoring that school boards cannot make salary deals that last longer than three years..."

Philadelphia Inquirer - Leadership changes likely for New Jersey Assembly Democrats

Njspotlight.com - Education Department Working Flat Out to Finish Federal Waiver…Critics contend too little time taken to gather public input on No Child Left Behind waiver application

By John Mooney, November 10 in Education|Post a Comment

The Christie administration is scrambling to complete a proposal to the federal government that would essentially remake how New Jersey grades and monitors its public schools.

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But in the rush to complete its waiver to the No Child Left Behind Act, the state is being accused of skimping on a critical aspect of the application: public input. It also has frustrated some critics who say the Department of Education hasn't shared enough information about what will be in the waiver application.

With five days to go to next Monday's deadline, the department yesterday accepted the last of the public testimony before it will formally submit its waiver application, which will lay out a system of tiered grading and interventions for public schools.

More than 200 individuals and organizations have weighed in through private meetings and online comment. These range from parents and businesspeople to the state's largest teachers union, representing 200,000 members.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) has been at the table almost every step of the way, raising concerns but also appreciative of Gov. Chris Christie's invitation after what has been a rocky relationship.

"I'd say the meetings have been positive, productive, and cordial even," said Vince Giordano, the union's executive director.

Still, Giordano said he has had his issues, and others have called the process way too rushed. The Education Law Center (ELC), the Newark advocacy group that led the landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation, suggested the state wait for the next round of applications so as to gain more public input.

"Such far-reaching plans deserve more careful legislative review and fuller public examination than the department has provided for," wrote David Sciarra, director of the ELC, in a letter to acting commissioner Chris Cerf.

"The Department's selective private conversations with an unknown number of 'stakeholders' and 'community members' are not a substitute for transparent public review of such significant proposals," Sciarra noted.

The uncertainty as to exactly what the administration will be proposing is one of the key concerns, with few details so far offered from Cerf and his top staff, who are working virtually full time on the application.

"It's literally an all-hands-on-deck situation" said Justin Barra, the department's communications director. "It involves every division in the department and the commissioner is heavily involved, too. It has been for the last month and a half, and it will be for the next week."

Last week, the department released an 11-page outline that gave the few details known so far. It proposed abandoning the current State Report Card and the federal requirements for "adequate yearly progress," replacing them with School Performance Reports and different tiers of achievement. Those on the bottom rungs would require specific interventions. Those at the top would see far less oversight and even potential rewards.

"There may be some minor differences in the end over what we are doing," said Barra. "But as to the general principle that NCLB is flawed and needs changing, that is universal."

But exactly what measures the administration would use and how it would decide the interventions remains the mystery, with Cerf laying out a number of options but saying districts would be left with some unspecified discretion. Adding more uncertainty, he also said the new procedures would require some statutory changes, from those that dictate how teachers are granted tenure to more sweeping measures to expand charter schools and even distribute school vouchers.

The inclusion of the vouchers bill -- the controversial Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) -- specifically roiled several of the interest groups. Some wondered if the administration is using the application to press the legislation through.

"It muddies everything up," said Giordano, whose union has forcefully opposed school vouchers in any form. "We have told them to leave it down the street with the legislature."

Nonetheless, he said the administration appears sincere in its efforts to include different voices, even critical ones. The union's strained relationship with Christie over the past two years -- including the governor's rejection of the union's support a year ago for the application for federal Race to the Top money – has left "cause for pause," Giordano said

"But I don't think this has been just an exercise," he said. "I do think there has been an serious exchange of views."

The Record - State rejects teacher contract

Wednesday, November 9, 2011  By Leslie Brody

The acting state education commissioner has ruled that the 2010-11 year of the Ramsey teachers' contract broke state law in a decision underscoring that school boards cannot make salary deals that last longer than three years.

Experts say the decision, which has infuriated Ramsey teachers, has implications for districts statewide that are wrestling with protracted negotiations.

It comes after years of fraught negotiations between Ramsey's board and teachers union. The legal dispute hinged on the fact that the salary deal was signed in April 2009, with one retroactive lump-sum covering two years, plus another agreement for 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Administrative Law Judge Ellen Bass approved that arrangement, finding that the board executed two separate agreements. That judge wrote that the settlement would "purchase labor peace," and noted that "simply put, labor strife is bad for kids."

But acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf overruled her decision and declared the 2010-11 salary plan "null and void." He wrote on Oct. 21 that the board "effectively bound itself to four years," a violation of a state law that limits boards to setting salary guides for a maximum of three years. That limit aimed to make sure that sitting board members did not have the power to commit future boards to long-term salary policies, considering the potential changes in the law, resources and local needs.

Richard Romains, president of the 300-member Ramsey Teachers Association, said the union planned to appeal Cerf's decision to the Appellate Division of state Superior Court.

"Teachers are furiously angry," Romains said. "It's an illogical decision, and I'm confident it is going to be overturned."

Robert Jacobs, lawyer for the Ramsey School Board, said the board welcomed the commissioner's findings.

"After three years, things change," Jacobs said. "There's a tax cap and revenue cuts from Trenton. There are all kinds of things that affect how a district operates."

A New Jersey School Boards Association analysis predicted that Cerf's ruling would cause some difficult labor negotiations to take longer.

"Applying the three-year maximum to not only prospective salary schedules, but also to retroactive adjustments, will likely mean that boards and staff will find themselves spending more time at the negotiating table," an NJSBA attorney wrote.

Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the NJSBA, said his association knows of at least four districts statewide that have adopted multiple contracts spanning more than three years. He said the arrangement signed in Ramsey was not uncommon among districts working under expired agreements for extended periods.

The Ramsey Board of Education approved the deal covering four years on April 28, 2009. Two days later, a new board was sworn in and decided to review the contract and eventually asked its lawyer to fight to have the deal reversed, citing the fiscal crisis.

Now the board and the union are struggling to agree on a new contract; the previous one expired in June. Negotiations stalled, a mediation failed, and they are waiting for a fact finder to be appointed, said John Nunziata, president of the Board of Education.

"I would characterize the ongoing negotiations as professional, complex and stressful," Nunziata said. The new settlement must abide by the new laws passed under the Christie administration, including the 2 percent cap on tax levy increases and the requirement that public workers contribute more for health benefits and pensions.

Under the contract just declared void, teachers got 4.35 percent raises last year. Both sides said it was unclear how those raises, already disbursed, would factor into the new negotiations. Now, teachers are working for the same paychecks they received last year.

Romains said Cerf's decision "brought negotiations to a complete, screeching halt."

E-mail: brody@northjersey.com


Philadelphia Inquirer - Leadership changes likely for New Jersey Assembly Democrats

There's an election this week that will have a substantial effect on New Jersey policy - and it's not Tuesday's vote to choose all 120 members of the Legislature.

This election will come Thursday, when the Assembly's 47 Democrats meet to select new leaders.

And just as a state redistricting commission this year made the legislative elections a foregone conclusion in most districts by protecting incumbents, this one appears to be a done deal.

A coalition dominated by South Jersey and Hudson and Essex County legislators is prepared to back Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver for another two-year term, after months of private grumbling by some that she should be ousted.

The main threat to the Essex County Democrat's leadership - Joseph Cryan, of Union County - also is likely to be replaced as Assembly majority leader by Camden County's Louis Greenwald. Hudson County Assemblyman Vincent Prieto is poised to take over Greenwald's role as chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.

Who controls the speakership is significant because that person has the power to advance or stonewall the agendas of Gov. Christie, a Republican, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). That's because the speaker controls which bills are posted for a vote by the Assembly.

Though Oliver has disagreed with Christie, Cryan was a more consistent critic of the governor and his likely departure signals the diminishing influence of progressive Democrats.

Tension in the Assembly exploded in June when Oliver, like Sweeney, bucked two-thirds of the party and posted a bill to have public workers pay more for health and pension benefits. The measure was passed when South Jersey and Essex County Democrats joined the GOP minority to support it.

There was subsequent talk among some of the more liberal caucus members, who opposed the legislation, that Oliver had jeopardized her position. Cryan, wary of the South Jersey delegation's influence, was particularly steamed.

Christie alluded to the infighting in a speech to wealthy Republican donors at a conference in Colorado hosted by the conservative Koch brothers. He said Oliver had agreed to post the bills for a vote after the governor assured her that Republicans would support her if members of her party tried to depose her during the tumultuous debates. Oliver has denied a deal was ever brokered.

In recent months, Cryan continued to eye Oliver's position, according to interviews. But he has been unable to garner the votes to displace her.

Prieto also had sought the speaker's position, but he compromised in recent days and accepted the influential budget chairmanship. A legislator since 2004, Prieto is also deputy majority whip.

Of the Assembly's 80 members, "I think there are 79 that would all want to be speaker," he said Monday. "But I'm very happy and excited for this new role."

He said he, Oliver, and Greenwald also had the support of Middlesex and Bergen County Democrats.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, wonders if the next departure from leadership could be Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), who is at odds with the less liberal Sweeney.

"I think it's really a big deal. . . . The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is going to be shut out of leadership," Murray said.

Cryan and Oliver declined Monday to comment on the leadership battle.

Leadership decisions aren't official until the Legislature reorganizes in January. A candidate for speaker needs at least 41 of the House's 80 votes. Traditionally, the minority party votes in January for the person selected during the majority members' vote weeks earlier, said Assembly Democratic spokesman Tom Hester.

Assembly Republicans on Monday declined to say whether they supported the Democrats' lineup.

Camden County Democratic leader and insurance executive George Norcross 3d, who reportedly helped negotiate the changes despite not being an elected official, did not return a call from The Inquirer.

Neither did Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D., Hudson), who advocated for Prieto to be budget chairman.

Greenwald's ascendance is considered such a fait accompli that he was introduced by Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) as the next majority leader of the Assembly at a rally by the Camden County Democrats on Saturday, according to someone in attendance.

Greenwald, of Voorhees, said Monday that he wanted to rebuild the party and focus on improving the state's economy, helping the most vulnerable and addressing high property taxes.

"I've received calls from members around the state wishing me well, thanking me for taking on this challenge," he said.

As for Oliver, the Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers' Council of New Jersey, said she had done a good job.

"This is her first term as speaker, and so anytime you're the first of anything it is a learning experience. . . . She has served as speaker at a very difficult and challenging time for the state," he said.

He said he believed Oliver would have an easier time with Greenwald as a partner.

"Far too often during this session, where the speaker has tried to build consensus, I think the majority leader had a different agenda," Jackson said.



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