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Category: Newark Public Schools

What Democracy? NBOE President Calls Public Participation “Bullshit”

Bullshit. Begin and end quote.

That’s what Newark Board of Education President Josephine Garcia called public participation at tonight’s meeting.

Newark Board of Education Meeting, 1/28/21

Yup, that’s my FB profile pic in the bottom right corner. So why did I record it? It’s just a petty comment right? Heat of the moment. We’ve all done it.

No. That sentiment expresses how the board, under her leadership, views the democratic process. For them, deliberation has no place in our public education system. This is further demonstrated by another act from tonight’s meeting–the swearing in of a political appointee to the vacancy left by the untimely passing of Board Member Tave Padilla.

The law states that a school board gets to fill a vacancy of this kind by majority vote of the remaining members. In no other place is a specific, required process outlined. This board, under Garcia’s leadership, allowed nearly the full 65 days allotted to make an appointment go by before having a discussion (in Executive Session no less) as a board about what to do. Then, with the business and regular meetings occurring two days apart from each other, made NO mention at Tuesday’s business meeting of their decision to appoint someone. They approved Thursday’s (tonight’s) agenda at the Tuesday meeting and then amended it as soon as tonight’s meeting opened. They amended the agenda to add the appointment vote.

So, if the law allows them to do this (but does it?), they’re not in the wrong, right? Wrong. This board had a choice. They always had a choice as to how to go about filling the vacancy. One such choice would have been to take applications from all those interested, deliberate over the applications, and then appoint someone. Another choice would have been to appoint a candidate from the last school board election, first asking the highest vote getter.

I guess this isn’t what they mean by school choice. I guess it’s all just bullshit.

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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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Is Slowing Down Common Core in NJ Enough?

September 2013 ushered in not only a new school year but new curricula across Newark Public Schools. These changes come on the heels of official Common Core implementation throughout classrooms in September 2012. In just one more year’s time, the first standardized tests aligned to Common Core will be administered.

But are we ready? A group of New Jersey legislators wants to slow down the process, delaying the use of any test until a thorough report is issued. With all the other fast-tracked changes occurring in NPS—namely the closing, consolidation, and selling of schools; new curriculum implementation; new teacher and administrator evaluation systems; the abolishment of essential staff positions like attendance counselors—the passing of this bill may teach the district administration how to put change in perspective.

A senator from southern New Jersey and four assembly members from northern New Jersey introduced a bill (S2973) in September which calls for the creation of a Common Core State Standards Evaluation Task Force. There will be nineteen members, seemingly to represent stakeholders of differing interests. Members will be appointed on recommendations from the two state unions (NJEA and NJAFT), the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and the New Jersey School Boards Association. Four parents of students enrolled in a New Jersey public school will be members, and four experts in mathematics and language arts literacy instruction and curriculum will be members. Two members each of the two legislative branches will sit on the task force, as well as the Commissioner of Education. The final member of the task force will be a representative of a nonpublic school located in New Jersey.

The task force has ambitious goals to be accomplished in six months:

  • describe the actions taken by the State to date to implement the common core state standards and outline a timeline of any subsequent actions to be taken;
  • compare the common core state standards for English language arts and mathematics to the core curriculum content standards in language arts literacy and mathematics that existed prior to the adoption of the common core state standards;
  • estimate the full cost for school districts to implement the common core state standards, including those costs already incurred by districts and those to be incurred in the future;
  • analyze students’ performance on the State assessments prior to the 2012-2013 school year and in the 2012-2013 and subsequent school years (the analysis shall assess changes in the achievement gap between different racial and ethnic groups and different economic groups); and
  • study and evaluate the issue of student and family personal data mining and a student’s right to privacy.

At least four public hearings held in different regions of the state must also occur for the purpose of gathering information regarding the implementation of the common core state standards, the mining of student and family data, and student privacy rights. No assessment connected to the Common Core—PARCC or otherwise—will be able to be administered prior to the issuance of the final report.

It is worthy to note that an identical bill was introduced in November in the New York State Assembly. And other states have taken commensurate actions to delay implementation of Core-aligned tests and/or use of the tests to make high-stakes decisions, including Massachusetts, Florida, Rhode Island, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, and Louisiana. Critiques of Common Core at this stage of the initiative are overwhelmingly about the lack of time given to enable a deep understanding of the standards. Teaching materials still need to be developed. Current high school students have only had these standards in their classes for a couple of years. Any Core-aligned test would be developed with the assumption that these students have mastered all of the preceding grades’ standards, making the test unfair and invalid.

Critics are also concerned about the elimination of local control of their public education systems. Parents in South Carolina protesting Common Core by participating in a “National Don’t Send Your Child to School Day” rally cited this as a worry. And a bill in Congress, introduced just two weeks ago, wants “to ensure that decisions by the Secretary of Education to award grants or other assistance to States or local educational agencies are not contingent upon the adoption of specific educational curricula.”

Back on the home front, Melissa Tomlinson, an NJEA rank and file member, started a petition on change.org with the purpose of gathering signatures in support of S2973 and urging NJEA leadership to conduct its own evaluation of the path of current education policy initiated with the adoption of the Common Core. Of all of the individuals the petition was addressed to, only Executive Director Ed Richardson has responded on the website. He acknowledged that NJEA was in full support of the legislation and would “be targeting our efforts after the new legislature convenes in mid-January.”

Actions like requesting signatures for a petition are often the impetus for a groundswell of organized, democratic participation in the public policy arena. If nothing else, S2973 will provide us information as to how to move forward in providing educational equity in the state of New Jersey.

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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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