Q&A

‘The war on teachers still exists.’ Newark Teachers Union chief on the Janus ruling, Roger León, and threats from Washington

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
"We took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists," said NTU President John Abeigon.

The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster ride for Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

The high point came on July 1 when Roger León, a veteran Newark educator, became the district’s new superintendent. Abeigon had fought incessantly with the previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf, protesting his confirmation vote and trading insults with him in the press during contentious contract negotiations. León, by contrast, is Abeigon’s longtime acquaintance who held a two-hour introductory meeting with the union’s leadership soon after he was selected as schools chief.

The low point arrived on June 27 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees who choose not to join their labor unions no longer must pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. The case, which was bankrolled by anti-union conservative groups, was brought by a state worker in Illinois named Mark Janus who argued that he should not be forced to support a union whose political views he disagreed with.

“In Newark, we have a word for a guy like that: Jerk-off,” Abeigon said in an interview last week at the union’s four-story headquarters near City Hall. “‘Free rider’ might be more politically correct. But that’s just jerk-off by another name.”

In Newark, about 93 percent of the roughly 4,000 teachers, aides, and clerks represented by the NTU are full members, Abeigon said. They pay 1.1 percent of their annual salary in dues — or about $770 per year for a teacher earning $70,000 annually. The remaining employees are so-called agency-fee payers, who pay .85 percent of their salary to the union, or $595 per year for someone making $70,000.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Janus, the union can no longer charge such fees. That means any NTU member who wants could end their membership but still enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining for free. Abeigon said none of his members dropped out after the ruling — but they only had four days to decide before the union’s July 1 enrollment deadline. It’s possible more could leave when the next window opens on Jan. 1.

During the hour-long interview with Chalkbeat, Abeigon gave his take on the ruling, the new superintendent, and the issues he’ll raise when contract negotiations with the district start this fall.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: The Janus ruling was a major blow to unions that could leave them with less money, members, and political clout. What will it mean for your union?

Abeigon: Right now, Newark has no one requesting to drop out.

It makes sense given what we’ve been through in the past 10 years with [former superintendents] Cami Anderson and Chris Cerf attempting to annihilate us. It doesn’t make sense to drop out. It’s not worth it. For $700 I’m going to kick my union in the face? After all we’ve been through? After all the wins we’ve had?

What incentive do your members have to keep paying dues?

The right to run for office, the right to vote for your union leadership. Access to discount benefit programs that we have that are only available to full-time members, access to professional development that we provide gratis.

What about representation if they come up for disciplinary charges or tenure charges?

Right now, [non-dues payers] would be entitled to that. However, [the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey] had a meeting yesterday. And there will be other meetings with the state legislature to correct that through the legislative process.

So essentially a law that would allow unions to only provide certain services to dues-paying members?

Correct.

It sounds like you’re also counting on your members to think beyond their personal financial interest and consider the greater good of the union.

We don’t have a separate source of income. We don’t sell T-shirts. We don’t invest in real estate. Our dues go to services and to protect members. If there’s no dues, there’s no service, there’s no protection. It’s that simple.

Our members know we’re not one of these unions that spend millions of dollars on staff and Cadillacs and vacations and conferences. I would say that 98 percent of union dues are spent on legal and professional services that we provide our members.

Some pundits have said the ruling could be a blessing in disguise to unions by forcing them to be more responsive to members and provide better services. Do you feel any pressure to be more responsive now?

If someone is working in a union that is not responsive and doesn’t provide services, this could be an incentive for that union to wake up and start listening to its members.

But if you look at the makeup of my executive board, my negotiation committees, my professional development committees, the workshops that we have here, I would argue there’s not a more progressive union in the state than the NTU.

So in your view, you’re already a responsive union that meets members’ needs?

Above and beyond.

Try to get in contact with another local union president while he’s on vacation through Facebook Messenger, and see if he responds. The staff in this building, we’re available 24-7.

Moving on to the new superintendent, Roger León. This is the first time the board has been able to choose a superintendent in over 20 years, rather than have one appointed by the state. And it chose a lifelong Newarker who’s a veteran educator. To you, what’s the significance of that?

It’s huge. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.

Now, not only do we have Roger, but we have [Gov. Phil] Murphy and [Commissioner Lamont] Repollet in the state Department of Education. So things should be a little more democratic.

And you know, democracy isn’t pretty. But there’s a process.

[León’s] going to learn where his role is as a superintendent who is answerable to a school board. And the school board is going to learn how to represent the parents to whom they’re responsible and the children.

How do you think your dealings with León, someone who’s from the district and worked here for over 25 years, will be different than they were with the state-appointed superintendents?

We’ll deal with him the same way we dealt with every single superintendent who preceded him. When they’re right, it’s because they listened to us, and when they’re wrong, it’s because they didn’t.

Tell me about León. Have you interacted with him over the years?

I’ve interacted with him a hundred times. I went to Montclair State with him; we took education law classes together.

Roger’s all about the kids. After that, he’s all about the teachers and administrators in the building who are in charge of providing those kids with an education.

Roger also comes from poverty. He went to Hawkins Street School as a child, and he still lives in the same house and the same neighborhood, and is loved and respected by the same people.

So it shouldn’t be all that difficult to express to Roger what’s wrong with a situation and how it can be remedied.

León also has a reputation for having very high standards. Is that a positive thing, or could it be a challenge for you if he thinks teachers are under-performing?

We expect him to be about high standards. But we also expect him to be about reasonable high standards.

If you’re in a classroom with 14, 15 kids, air-conditioned, parental support, you can have a certain expectation. If you’re in a classroom with 30 kids and it’s 105 degrees and gunshots interrupt the lesson, you have to adjust and monitor your expectations.

Does that mean lowering expectations for students facing those challenges?

No. But don’t expect the same results in the same amount of time.

One of the first things León did was force out 31 officials who were connected to his predecessors, Anderson and Cerf. What did you think about that?

It was a good start, but there’s still more of them to go.

Anyone associated with education reform or the corporate-charter school agenda needs to be identified, isolated, and let go. I would push Roger that anyone in the administrative sector who was hired by Cami or Cerf be terminated immediately.

You’ve called for Newark Enrolls, the district’s single enrollment system for traditional and charter schools, to be dismantled. But just recently León made a comment saying he was planning to keep it. Did that concern you?

Well it takes time to dismantle something, you can’t just dismantle it overnight. You have to replace it with something. I’ll give him time. But little by little it has to be demolished.

The purpose of Newark Enrolls was solely to put children in the empty seats at charter schools.

It had nothing to do with accommodating Newark parents. How do you accommodate a Newark parent by telling her that two of her kids are going to go to one school, and the the third is going to go to another school across town when she’s got a full-time job and has to get them to both schools?

León has limited control over charter schools. He can’t open or close charters, but he has talked about getting the two sectors to collaborate by having principals and teachers share ideas and best practices.

There’s nothing we can share. I disagree with him on that.

We have nothing to learn from the corporate charter industry. Everything that they use are things we’ve been arguing for for decades. We’ve been looking for legislation year after year to mandate a class-size minimum and maximum of 15 to 20 [students]. We didn’t need to learn that from them. We’ve been looking for that legislation forever. We can never get it.

Another issue you’ve brought up before are the extended hours at low-performing schools that was built into the 2012 teachers contract.

Another corporate-reform failure. It failed big because they thought they knew everything.

Every teacher can tell you that if you’re doing something wrong, or a kid’s not getting it, keeping him there an additional three hours a day is only going to frustrate him. It’s going to attack his self-esteem, and he’s going to act out. And that’s exactly what we saw happen.

So will you push León to get rid of that?

Yes. We want a restoration of the after-school program that has worked successfully in the traditional schools.

The contract that was negotiated in 2012 was considered groundbreaking. It had performance pay, longer hours for some schools, a new teacher evaluation system, and teacher raises.

We are a progressive union. We did negotiate those things.

And where they were successful is because we made them work. Where they failed is because the district was not being run by educators. It was being run by corporate charter reformers.

So now when the current contract is set to expire after this school year, will you try to keep any of those policies in the new contract?

We’re going to be trying to negotiate them all away.

Including performance pay?

Except for that. We have no problem with getting more money into the pockets of our members.

That’s what we’re about. We’re a union. It’s the Newark Teachers Union. A lot of people forget that. No, I’m not the parents union. I’m not the taxpayers union. I’m not the children’s union. The children in this city got more advocates than you can throw a…They got the [Advocates for Children of New Jersey], they got the Education Law Center, they got the parents and the other thing. Everyone and their mother in this city is an advocate for the children.

Wherever there’s a child in this city, one of my members is within three feet of that kid. You think I want any harm to come to that child? No, because the collateral damage will hit the teacher.

This moment seems like it’s been a bit of whiplash for your union. In Newark, you have a new locally controlled school board and a superintendent who’s an educator. But at the national level, you have a Supreme Court ruling that goes against unions. How are you feeling in this moment?

Locally, it’s a win that we’ve been working for for a long time — the return to local control.

But we were never not mindful that the war on teachers was a national one. And we took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists. That we may be lucky, we may have spared ourselves now, we may have found a moment to breathe without being directly attacked. But we still have to keep our helmets on for attacks that come from Washington.

But we’ll deal with it. We’ll survive those attacks, too.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.