In deal with union, Newark agrees to pay raises for teachers with graduate degrees

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León recently made a deal with the teachers union to settle grievances from their 2012 contract.

Newark teachers are due for a $2.5 million windfall this year, and hundreds more can expect hefty raises in the future, thanks to a new agreement between the district and the city teachers union.

The agreement stems from an arbitrator’s finding that the district violated several provisions of the 2012 teachers contract, which was touted at the time as a national model. In the document inked this month, the district agreed to make several payments demanded by the arbitrator and to negotiate pay raises for teachers who earn advanced degrees — ending a feature of the 2012 contract that replaced such raises with one-time bonuses for teachers who completed a controversial training program.

While the terms of the raises must still be negotiated, they could prove costly to the district. The union estimates that between 200 and 300 teachers who earned degrees in recent years are eligible for retroactive raises which, in the past, ranged from $2,500 to $4,000 depending on the type of degree.

The payments highlight the bind that Newark’s new superintendent, Roger León, finds himself in as he tries to enact his own policies while at the same time confronting costly unresolved matters left by the previous two superintendents — all without the massive influx of private funding that bankrolled many of his predecessors’ efforts.

In fact, the contract settlements may be the least of León’s worries.

At a school-board meeting this month, León said a legal matter triggered by the previous administration has temporarily blocked him from hiring attendance counselors — a key component of his plan to combat the district’s severe absenteeism problem. And, without giving specifics, he cited a fine related to employee health insurance that the district incurred in 2015 but never paid.

The current price tag: At least $48 million, León told the board.

“P.S., I began on July 1,” he quipped — a pointed reminder that his financial headaches, for now, are largely inherited.

The agreement between León and the Newark Teachers Union includes $1.7 million for various groups of teachers who were shortchanged under the terms of the 2012 contract, according to the 2017 arbitration decision. (Former Superintendent Christopher Cerf appealed the decision, but a superior-court judge recently upheld it.)

It also includes $816,000 in raises for the district’s highest-paid teachers, which stemmed from a clause in last year’s contract enabling the new administration to renegotiate raises. León agreed to increase salaries by the maximum amount allowed by the contract — from 2.95 to 3.25 percent.

The most far-reaching — and expensive — part of the agreement is likely to be the pay hike for teachers who earn postgraduate degrees.

The 2012 contract did away with the district’s traditional salary system, which put teachers with master’s or doctorate degrees on a higher pay scale. Instead, the contract allowed for teachers who completed a district-approved graduate program to earn a one-time bonus of up to $20,000.

Then-Superintendent Cami Anderson and Cerf, who at the time was state education commissioner, had two goals in pushing for the change. One was to reduce costs. Calling the graduate-degree raises “prohibitively expensive,” Anderson said during an arbitration hearing that the district expected to pay for the one-time awards with private money that wealthy donors, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, had provided to finance an overhaul of the district.

The other objective was to spur changes in teacher-training programs. District officials did not believe that most universities had sufficiently revamped their programs to prepare teachers for the state’s new, more rigorous “Common Core” learning standards that teachers now were expected to help students meet. The idea was to award bonuses only to teachers who attended Common Core-aligned programs, which would pressure colleges and universities to update their approach.

“This was all to incentivize the higher-ed community to do more, better, faster,” Anderson said in her testimony, “and also about rewarding teachers who were bettering themselves — not on the old way of teaching, but on the way that the new Common Core would demand.”

The contract called for a committee with representatives from the city’s teachers union and higher-education to recommend criteria for the district to use in approving programs. However, the district never convened that committee, according to the arbitrator’s findings.

Instead, more than two years after the contract was signed, the district on its own approved a single program: the Relay Graduate School of Education, a relatively new and controversial institution with close ties to the charter-school sector. Only teachers who completed that program could earn the $20,000 bonus.

The arbitrator, James Mastriani, said last year that the district must actually convene the selection committee and determine which degrees will merit a bonus payment. Teachers who previously earned degrees from approved programs would then be eligible for the applicable bonuses.

However, the deal between León and the union abolishes that bonus program and restores a version of the old system, where teachers with graduate degrees from any institution received higher pay.

The value of their degrees going forward will be determined next year, when the two sides negotiate a new contract to replace the current one, which expires on June 30. Crucially for the union, the salary increases will also grow members’ pensions — a benefit not offered by the one-time bonuses.

“Instead of continuing to try and make an unwieldy, tainted system work,” Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon wrote Monday in an email to his members, “we got the district to agree in writing to work with us on putting the original time-tested system back in place during our next contract negotiations.”

The agreement adds that any employee who earned a graduate degree since the start of the 2012 contract will be eligible for a retroactive salary increase. Union officials pointed out that it does not put any restrictions on those degrees — meaning hundreds of teachers could eventually get checks with sizable back payments.

In an interview Tuesday, León insisted that this was not a blanket pay hike. Instead, he said he would push during negotiations to give raises only to employees who earned advanced degrees that are relevant to their jobs or teaching assignments.

“We will review every single one of those people’s degrees,” he said.

It will not be clear until after next year’s contract negotiations how much the raises will cost. It’s possible they could eventually dwarf the price of the $20,000 bonuses if teachers who receive the salary bumps remain in the district for many years.

León said he did not expect that. He added that, with the private money that paid for many elements of the 2012 contract now spent, it would be hard for the district today to afford the bonuses.

“Where am I going to get that money from?” he said.

First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.