Newark Teachers Union sues district over requests for convocation video, employee bonus pay

A white building is seen with a blue canopy and a sign that reads “Newark Teachers Union”
Newark Public Schools redacted the names and amounts paid to employees eligible for the district’s “Let’s Go to Work” payments in response to a public records request filed by the Newark Teachers Union. (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

The Newark Teachers Union is suing the district in an effort to force officials to produce video of this year’s convocation and information on bonus payments made to faculty and staff or prove that the records do not exist. 

The teachers union has been advocating since last fall for Newark’s per diem staff  — employees who work as needed for the school district — and say they were left out of a $1,000 “Let’s Go to Work” bonus payment given to full-time staff this school year. The district and union have been at odds on why per diems were excluded. 

After union leaders filed a request for bonus pay records, the district provided the documents but blacked out the names and payment amounts to eligible employees. Union leaders hope the lawsuit forces the district to release a full list of bonus payouts, with names and amounts, and a video or PowerPoint presentation of this year’s convocation, or to prove that those records do not exist. 

“The NTU is interested in researching how the program operates and why some, but not other faculty received the payments,” read the lawsuit filed last month in Superior Court in Essex County.

In an effort to understand the “design and implementation” of the program, the teachers union filed two requests for information about bonus pay records in December and January before filing the lawsuit against the Newark Board of Education in February. 

Superintendent Roger León first announced the “Let’s Go to Work” bonus during the annual convocation held at the end of August last year where he thanked staff for their work and their “commitment to excellence during these most unusual times,” according to a district press release. After realizing that per diem employees would be excluded, union members showed up at the December board meeting to protest the exclusion but board president Dawn Haynes argued that the union did not negotiate the payment for per diem employees. 

Union leaders disputed the claim, saying it wasn’t a part of their contract negotiations last spring but rather an incentive from León. In an email to Chalkbeat Newark in December, district spokesperson Nancy Deering said the “Let’s Go To Work” payment was a “retention strategy for full-time employees.”  

The union and its employees continue to claim that the district’s per diem staff worked during the pandemic and are deserving of the extra pay. 

Mike Maillaro, the union’s director of research and communication, filed the first request after the December board meeting for “video of the district-wide convocation from August 30, 2022” and a list of “any and all recipients of ‘Let’s go to work’ grants or payments for the 2022-23 school year with the titles of Chief of Staff, Assistant Superintendents, Special Assistants, Directors, Supervisors, or equivalent titles,” the lawsuit read. 

The district responded by saying they did not have a video of the two-hour August convocation and provided an 88-page document of pages that were “almost entirely” blacked-out, except to show the titles of employees who apparently received the pay, according to the lawsuit. 

In January, the union filed a second request for records, this time seeking PowerPoint documents, notes, or transcripts of León’s “Let’s Go to Work” presentation at the convocation. The district denied the request and said the records did not exist, the lawsuit alleges. 

The Newark Teachers Union has roughly 2,000 per diem classroom aides and teachers who are members. Newark schools were closed from April 2020 until September 2021, prompting concern about returning to in-person learning among parents, students, and teachers who were at risk of being exposed to the virus during that time. The district was forced to shut down schools again as COVID cases surged in December of that year.

The district and teachers union have a scheduled court hearing on April 13.

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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