With contract about to expire, Newark Teachers Union says new deal with district is ‘very close’

The school year is over in Newark, but a big question lingers for teachers trying to budget for summer vacations or just pay the bills: How much will they earn this fall?

Union and district officials are still hammering out a contract for next school year that will determine how much Newark’s roughly 2,700 teachers are paid and how they can qualify for annual salary increases, which currently are tied to classroom performance. It appears possible that a new agreement may not be reached before the existing one expires at the end of this month, which would freeze the current pay system in place until a replacement is approved.

“Our negotiations team has worked diligently and nonstop to try and get it done by the end of the school year, but that is looking less and less likely every day,” Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said in a note to members last week ahead of the final day of classes on June 20. “As long as progress is being made, we will continue to meet with the district over the summer in the hopes of coming to the settlement our members deserve.”

Union officials sounded more optimistic this week about the negotiations, which began in February. They posted a new message for members Wednesday saying, “We believe we are very close to reaching a contract settlement.” The union said to expect details of the final agreement and a vote this summer.

The new contract will be a milestone for Newark — the first since the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district last year, and Roger León, a veteran Newark educator, became superintendent. It will test whether, absent the animosity that soured relations between the union and the past two state-appointed superintendents, the two sides can reach an agreement that satisfies educators while meeting the demands of district management.

The negotiations built off a contract from 2012 that was hailed as “groundbreaking” for linking teachers’ pay to their performance ratings, which are based partly on student test scores. It established $5,000 bonuses for teachers rated “highly effective,” and restricted once-automatic annual pay hikes to teachers rated effective or higher.

That contract — which included hefty raises to win teachers’ support for the merit-pay system — cost the district an estimated $100 million, about half of which came from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other donors eager to inject private-sector accountability and compensation practices into education. While a majority of teachers approved the deal, many suspected that the bonuses would not be awarded fairly and would disappear after the philanthropic money dried up.

Sure enough, the private funds were soon tapped, forcing the district to scale back the bonuses it offered in the 2017 contract that ends June 30. Now, León must decide whether the merit pay is worth funding through the district budget (at a likely cost to other programs), and whether salary increases should remain contingent on performance.

He and the union have also had to bargain over a number of other contract provisions that tend to attract less attention than performance-based pay but can matter a lot to teachers’ bottom lines, such as salary bumps for advanced degrees and time spent in the district.

But the biggest issue for many teachers is their base pay. New Jersey teachers have some of the highest salaries in the country, even when factoring in the state’s high cost of living. Yet salaries vary widely by district. Newark’s median teacher salary in the 2017-18 school year — $64,848 — was slightly less than the statewide average and well below some neighboring districts, including East Orange and Jersey City, according to state data. Starting teachers in Newark make just $53,000 and must stay for nearly two decades to reach the top of the pay scale.

“My school is hemorrhaging good, young teachers right now because Newark is not paying them enough,” said Branden Rippey, a longtime social studies teacher at Science Park High School and a member of a union caucus calling for higher pay.

Rippey said he knows of at least four Science Park teachers who are headed to other districts that offer more generous compensation — including one educator who said his salary will grow by $19,000 by his simply crossing district lines.

Under the terms of the closed-door negotiations, district and union officials declined to comment. Yet some details about what’s on the bargaining table have already surfaced.

The district budgeted $10 million for next school year to cover the cost of new teachers and a 2.5 percent increase in teacher salaries, according to a district presentation. The average salary increase for New Jersey teachers this school year was 2.9 percent, according to a survey of contracts by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

District officials also agreed, even before negotiations began, to revise a salary system that assigns all teachers to the same pay scale regardless of their education level. In the past, teachers with masters’ degrees or doctorates earned higher salaries. But the 2012 contract ended that practice, creating a single pay scale for new hires that offered a one-time $20,000 bonus for teachers who completed district-approved graduate programs.

However, an arbitrator ruled in 2017 that the district had violated the terms of the contract in how it chose the single approved program. Last fall, León agreed to end the bonus program and go back to the traditional system of higher salaries for advanced degrees, union leaders said at the time. The two sides agreed to work out in negotiations the amount of the salary increases, which will be given retroactively to teachers who earned degrees since 2012, according to the agreement.

“Instead of continuing to try and make an unwieldy, tainted system work, 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,” Abeigon said in an email to union members in November.

It remains to be seen what concessions the district will demand, if any, in return for those salary increases and any across-the-board raises in teachers’ base pay. While officials may want to contain the cost of salaries and benefits, which account for 94 percent of the money Newark schools receive, they also are acutely aware that talented teachers can find jobs elsewhere if they feel shortchanged by the new contract.

Other contract features that could be up for negotiation include employee health benefits, how much time teachers get for training and lesson planning, and the wages of per-diem teacher aides, who are also covered by the contract and currently earn $15 an hour. Yet another issue is “longevity” rewards, which hike the pay of veteran teachers at certain increments beginning in their 15th year. The 2017 contract ended those raises for newly hired teachers; restoring them could cost the district millions of dollars in the future.

Yvette Jordan, a Central High School teacher and member of the union’s executive board, who is not involved in negotiations, said she hopes a new contract is in place by the time classes resume in September. She said she expects León, a former teacher and principal, to agree to terms that are fair to teachers while still holding them accountable for results.

“He is our biggest cheerleader,” she said. “Yet he also recognizes that we have the most impact on the students in our classrooms, and because of that, our responsibility is great.”