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2-8-12 Education and Related Issues in the News
Asbury Park Press - N.J. education commissioner likes tenure reform bill, wants pay changes..."Cerf also reiterated his longstanding opposition to allowing voters in a school district to decide whether or not to approve a charter school..."

Courier Post - Property taxes rose at a slower rate in 2011

NJ Spotlight -School Testing Investigation Moves to Next Phase…State investigators to begin interviewing teachers at nine schools

NJ Spotlight - November Option for School Elections Opens Floodgates for Switch…300 school districts poised to make changes that take budgets off annual ballot

Asbury Park Press -  N.J. education commissioner likes tenure reform bill, wants pay changes

11:50 PM, Feb. 7, 2012 | Written by Jason Method Statehouse Bureau

TRENTON — New Jersey’s top education official said Tuesday there is much he likes about a Democratic-sponsored teacher tenure reform bill, although he stopped short of endorsing the measure.

Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said he is glad the bill, if enacted into law, would end tenure as lifetime job security, and require that teacher ratings play a significant role in determining who would be let go during layoffs.

But Cerf acknowledged that the bill does not contain provisions for merit pay, long advocated by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. Instead, Cerf said, he hopes merit pay will be allowed by the Legislature and then eventually become embedded in teacher contracts through the local negotiation process.

Cerf made the comments during a meeting with the Asbury Park Press editorial board, one day after state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, introduced what, if approved, would be landmark teacher tenure legislation for New Jersey, although about half of the states have enacted some form of tenure reform.

Ruiz has been meeting with various interest groups, including the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, for about a year. Ruiz has been praised by Christie, a Republican, and Cerf reiterated that praise on Tuesday.

“Let’s give a lot of credit to Sen. Ruiz. I’m a Democrat, this is a hard issue for Democrats to carry,” Cerf said. “She is carrying it ably, thoughtfully and well.”

That the bill would create a mechanism for teachers to lose tenure protections if they are found to be ineffective is “a big deal,” Cerf said.

Regarding layoffs, Cerf said it is illegal for a school board to keep teachers based on their ability, and must instead lay off according to seniority. He said changing that law — called “last in, first out” — will be a huge cultural shift within local education.

“The system is decrepit and it’s not working,” Cerf said.

Cerf said he prefers what he termed “differential pay” as a separate measure passed by the Legislature.

Cerf noted that teachers currently get pay raises only based on “steps and lanes” in contracts — steps for longevity and lanes for additional education beyond a bachelor’s degree.

But research shows that teachers do not necessarily get better over time or with advanced degrees, Cerf said.

“We uniquely do reward teachers, by law, for two considerations that are relatively unlinked” to student performance, he said.

School districts should be able to offer different pay to teachers for a variety of reasons, Cerf said.

“If I want to pay more money to a teacher to work in a high-challenge school, I ought to be able to do that,” Cerf said. “If … a great teacher has been recruited for another school district, (the district) ought to be able to pay a retention bonus.

“Let everything else work out at the bargaining table. If they want to do performance bonuses … I just want this profession to have the opportunity to use compensation as a management tool,” Cerf added.

Cerf also reiterated his longstanding opposition to allowing voters in a school district to decide whether or not to approve a charter school, even though a bill that would require just that passed an Assembly committee last week.

“I’ve never met the situation where monopolists, given the chance to vote for competition would do that, ever,” Cerf said. “The people who tend to be good at organizing people to vote would be against mucking around with the current system.”

The Ruiz tenure bill, which contains provisions that have also been proposed by Christie and Cerf, would:

Require teachers to be classified in one of four categories after their annual evaluation: highly effective, effective, partially ineffective and ineffective.

Allow tenure to be revoked for teachers and assistant principals rated in the bottom two categories if they did not improve the following year.

Force teachers deemed fully or partially ineffective to face layoffs, even if they have seniority, a key element demanded by education reform advocates. But school district needs would be the first criteria in determining whom to let go.

The bill would also affect other personnel areas. For example, principals will have final say over whether a teacher is hired for or transferred to their school.

Tenured teachers who are fired for cause would face an expedited appeal timeline, with the final determination to be made by an administrative law judge.


Courier Post - Property taxes rose at a slower rate in 2011

11:36 PM, Feb. 7, 2012 |  Written by  Jean Mikle,  New Jersey Press Media

New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes continued to rise in 2011, although at a slower rate than in previous years, according to figures released by the state Department of Community Affairs.

The average annual property tax bill was up $183 from 2010 to 2011, to $7,759. That’s an increase of 2.4 percent, slightly more than half the 4.1 percent increase seen between 2009 and 2010.

New Jersey has had the highest property taxes in the nation for many years.

A 2 percent cap on property tax increases proposed by Gov. Chris Christie was adopted by the Legislature and went into effect last year.

In Monmouth County, the average property tax bill rose $248, to $8,040. That’s a 3.2 percent increase. Ocean County property owners saw their taxes jump an average of $618, to $5,434. That’s an increase of nearly 13 percent.

In Jackson, property taxes rose slightly more than 6 percent, to $6,458. A deal between township officials and Jackson’s Policemen’s Benevolent Association prevented police layoffs last year, but officials in the township said recently that employee layoffs are again possible this year.

Statewide, Paterson saw the highest property tax increase, at 17.3 percent to $8,829, for municipalities with more than 250 residents. Corbin City, in Atlantic County, had the biggest drop, at 20.6 percent. The town has about 500 residents, and homeowners paid an average of $3,328 in property taxes.

Over the years the state has attempted to mitigate some of the rise in property taxes by distributing rebates to property owners. Rebate checks, previously mailed in October, averaged about $1,000 during Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s administration.

Rebates are now distributed as a credit against property tax bills.

They averaged $240 in 2011, according to DCA figures.


NJ Spotlight -School Testing Investigation Moves to Next Phase…State investigators to begin interviewing teachers at nine schools

By John Mooney, February 8, 2012 in Education

The first team of state investigators is expected tomorrow at Woodbridge's Avenel Street School, one of nearly a dozen schools singled out last summer for irregularities and possible cheating on state tests.

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What raised the red flag? Avenel is one of nine schools that had among the highest erasure rates on the tests in 2010.

In each case, an extraordinary number of answers were changed from wrong to right -- as much as four times higher than the norm -- according to Robert Cicchino, a former State Police commander who now directs of the department's Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance.

The interviews are the next step in an investigation that stretches back seven months, when 34 schools were named in a preliminary analysis conducted by the state’s testing vendor.

The bulk of them were subject to at least internal district inquiries, state officials said. The first round of findings on those inquiries is to be released in the next few weeks, officials said

But in the meantime, state investigators fixed on the nine with the highest rates and pored over 103 boxes loaded with more than 200,000 test booklets and other documents.

Four of the schools are in Newark, including one of its highest performing, the Abington Avenue School. Three charter schools were also named and are being investigated as well.

"We are now comfortable with knowing what teacher was in what room on what day," said Cicchino.

“With the investigative report, we'll interview the teachers and administrators involved," he said.

In an interview yesterday, Cicchino said the investigation is one of the most complex he can remember in his law enforcement career, mixing statistics-heavy forensic work to determine the extent of erasures with traditional witness interviews.

Leading the team is special investigator Teresita Munkacsy, who has specific expertise in statistical analysis.

Adding to the challenge are the 18 or more months that have passed since the tests. Investigators haven't decided yet whether they will interview students, Cicchino said.

"Remember this was 2010, a year and a half ago," he said. "How much will they remember?"

Making matters worse, Cicchino said there were delays in collecting test booklets, timesheets, and other documents from Measurement Inc., the state's chief testing contractor, which did the initial erasure analysis by machine.

Still, he said the interviews are where the cases are decided, with the erasures alone unlikely to be enough evidence. In each case, he expected teachers and administrators to be accompanied by their union officials, possibly complicating matters further.

"That may restrict how far we get," he said. "A lot of this will be contingent on cooperation."

Union leaders in Newark yesterday said they had been contacted about the investigation, and some of their members had already been interviewed by at least district officials.

“All I know is they were told by investigators that they answered the questions sufficiently,” said Joseph DelGrosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union.

Cicchino wouldn't even venture as to how long the entire process could go, saying the first visits will be to smaller schools and districts to help determine how much time will be needed. In some cases, the problem may be restricted to a single class; in others, it may involve nearly every grade.

"It will depend on how these interviews go," he said. "We have to walk before we can run, so we are starting with the smallest first."

For a school like Avenel, with just one grade under review, "it's probably five to seven people to talk to," Cicchino said. "Where it's every class in every grade, it's a whole different beast."

What comes of all of this is yet to be determined. Cicchino's office typically investigates a dozen test breaches a year, sometimes leading to disciplinary action against teachers or even loss of licenses.

He was not making any predictions at this point, but also said he wanted to be ready for all outcomes, including possible referrals to the state Attorney General's office.

"If we are going to have any case that may include criminal charges, we want to be able to address that," he said.

NJ Spotlight - November Option for School Elections Opens Floodgates for Switch…300 school districts poised to make changes that take budgets off annual ballot

By John Mooney, February 8, 2012 in Education|2 Comments

In what started as a trickle after a new law opened up the possibility, more than 230 New Jersey school districts have moved their elections to November and all but taken their budgets off the annual ballot, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA).

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With roughly a week to go before what state officials set as a loose deadline, the association predicts the number could top 300 districts, or more than half of all districts that have elections.

“I’m pleased to see it embraced by so many districts and look forward to seeing it embraced by even more,” said state Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), one of the primary sponsors of the law.

“We’re controlling government spending and property taxes and increasing public participation in our democracy,” Greenwald said in a statement. “These are all good things."

Signed by Gov. Chris Christie last month after drawing bipartisan support, Greenwald’s law allowed districts to move school board elections from April to November, with the stated goal of increasing voter turnouts from what are typically only about 15 percent of registered voters.

The incentive for districts is the November election would not have separate budget votes, as long as the local school tax levy stayed within the state’s 2 percent cap. If above the cap, the extra spending would be put on the ballot as a separate question.

By and large, districts have opted for the November vote to take advantage of the budget exclusion, giving more stability and predictability to their budget process each year.

Those opting for the move spanned the state, with every county seeing at least one district adopt the necessary resolution, according to the association’s unofficial count. Monmouth and Hunterdon counties will see the most changes, with 31 districts opting to switch in Monmouth and 23 in Hunterdon.

On the other hand, a handful of districts have formally voted to maintain the April votes to continue to give local voters a say over spending, even if within the caps. Those included Emerson and Paramus in Bergen County.

And some districts said they needed more time. The Mountain Lakes board decided to keep the vote in April while it weighed the pros and cons of the move. One condition of moving the vote is it cannot be reversed for four years.

“We believe that one month is not enough time for us to carefully weigh all the potential benefits and liabilities of this legislation,” the board said in a statement to the public. “Nor will we be able to gain the informed, public input that we feel is necessary to make such a critical decision in this timeframe.”


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608