Big staffing changes coming to Newark schools, as top-to-bottom overhaul begins

Major staffing changes are in store for the Newark school system.

As part of a long-planned district overhaul, Superintendent Roger León is cutting the positions held by dozens of vice principals and other administrators, while also bringing back a school management role that his predecessor eliminated. He is also hiring directors to lead more than a dozen central-office departments, including math, social studies, and bilingual education.

At the same time, hundreds of school employees will see their official job titles change, which could spell pay cuts for some workers, their union warned. Those changes are the result of a 2017 ruling by the state’s Civil Service Commission, which found that previous superintendents had placed 485 employees in non-unionized positions without the agency’s approval.

Now that their titles are shifting, some of the employees will have to reapply for their jobs.

“We can migrate them in there, but they still have to apply officially,” León said at a school board meeting Saturday where he detailed the staffing changes. “Since this is a new title, people don’t have a right to it.”

León added that “good staff” would be retained — but warned that some employees might not make the cut.

“I want the people who aren’t good to go — we don’t need people that are going to delay us,” he said. “This school district, we need people who are going to run forward.”

Key to León’s top-to-bottom reorganization of the district is reversing changes made by his two immediate predecessors, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, state-appointed superintendents who sought to streamline the district’s bureaucracy and give school-level leaders more decision-making power. The prior superintendents pursued those ends by undermining local labor unions and recruiting some school and district leaders with limited classroom experience — methods that rankled León, a career educator whom the local school board named superintendent last year.

“If I have a certificate, people working below me must also have certificates,” León said Saturday, referring to teaching certifications. He added: “This whole autonomy concept went buck wild — and it went buck wild in the central office too.”

León’s overhaul will shake up the corps of administrators who help run the district’s more than 60 schools.

He is reducing the number of vice principals and eliminating the position of chief innovation officer in schools, an Anderson creation that critics considered a tactic to install relatively inexperienced educators as school administrators. At the same time, he is restoring the department chairperson position in schools, which Anderson cut, whose job is to oversee teachers of specific subjects like English and math.

Overall, the cuts will remove 66 administrative positions, saving the district more than $7 million, León said. As the district begins layoffs, more than 100 current administrators will be spared because they have earned tenure.

“This is a scary problem because some of those 101 people may not be worthy of being saved, but they’re protected by the law,” León told the board.

In that regard, he said, he agrees with one of the justifications that Anderson and Cerf gave for their controversial staffing policies — that bureaucracy and union rules can sometimes protect incompetence.

“This is Cami’s argument, and I agreed with her,” León said. “It’s not fair that someone who isn’t good stays in a position because they have more years of experience than somebody who is better.”

One chief innovation officer who has worked in Newark schools for nine years told Chalkbeat that the district recently sent her a termination letter that provided no explanation for her removal. In her role, she helped evaluate and coach teachers, plan staff trainings, and organize workshops for parents, among other duties, said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is considering appealing her dismissal.

“To be discarded this way, it’s humiliating,” she said. “I have lost all respect for this district.”

Some vice principals who are losing their positions will apply for one of the 55 new department chair spots, which could shrink their paychecks by thousands of dollars, one principal said. The principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said León’s downsizing makes sense: Vice principals proliferated under Anderson, yet many held specialized roles that were not much different than department chairs.

“Now some people are going to lose money, but they probably shouldn’t have been vice principals,” the school leader said. “There’s no other way to fix that than demoting them.”

The nearly 500 staffers affected by the title change include school operations managers and community engagement specialists — roles Anderson established that were originally not affiliated with any union. Union leaders, who criticized the move as a ploy to weaken organized labor and circumvent seniority rules, filed grievances with the Civil Service Commission.

The employees eventually joined the Newark Teachers Union, but the district did not make changes required by the commission until now, said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. As the district reclassifies and eliminates certain job titles, it will match employees with the new positions based on their years of experience in the system, said Abeigon, whose union negotiated the salaries of the new roles with the district.

“We’re going to monitor each and every decision they make,” he said, referring to district officials. “If we come across a decision that has been reached in violation of civil service or seniority rules, we’ll definitely bring it to the board’s attention.”

In the coming weeks, León also plans to hire several top officials, including a head of teaching and learning and a new safety director.

He also is looking for directors to oversee 15 academic departments. Some of the departments are currently run by special assistants who lack the proper qualifications, León told the board. His new hires, which the board must approve, will be required to hold teaching certifications, he added.

“The director is supposed to be able to teach the content that they’re directing over,” León said. “These people must be my very, very best.”