After more than two decades under state control, the Newark public schools are gaining traction in test scores and graduation rates. But their teachers have been without a contract since 2015. And their union president is at odds with Newark’s state appointed school Superintendent Chris Cerf, who yesterday on this program suggested the union president isn’t serious about negotiating. NJTV News Correspondent David Cruz interviewed the president of the Newark Teachers Union, John Abeigon.
Cruz: John, thanks for coming on with us.
Abeigon: Thanks David, for having me.
Cruz: So, we had Superintendent Cerf on yesterday with Mary Alice. Why don’t you tell us where you think negotiations are right now with this new contract?
Abeigon: Well, negotiations are ongoing. We’ve met once this week. I’ve asked that we expedite the number of meetings that we have and increase them and we were able to get a commitment for two days next week. We’re not that far apart, but where we do differ, mainly it’s due to their reform agenda. Which really flies in the face of the things that are already in our contract and that they well know we will never give up those rights.
Cruz: The superintendent said yesterday this is basically about money. Is it?
Abeigon: Well, yeah. Unfortunately when you are talking about education in this state, it’s always about money. That’s why they went to the State Board of Education seeking to reduce the qualifications and the standards per charter school teachers and administrators. Remember, the cooperate charter school agenda in this state, which Chris Cerf is a strong cheerleader for that movement, need to see decreased payrolls in order to increase profit.
Cruz: I’ll get to charter schools in a minute. But when you say it’s about money are you saying that you guys want X percent per year and the school system’s offering Y percent per year?
Abeigon: David, that’s exactly what’s happening. You have to remember that he has a $1 billion a year budget. So last year, the previous year and for this school year — 2016 to 2017 — he’s had $1 billion for each of those years. He didn’t project that at some point, or another, he was going to need to sit down and talk with the most important faction of his enterprise, which is the teachers, the aides, the clerks, the support staff, the wrap-around services?
Cruz: So, where are you? How far apart are you on the money question?
Abeigon: Financially, we’re quite far apart, quite far apart. I mean, he released the letter on Oct. 6 and he released it to the media, so I don’t want to break the ground rules, in terms of negotiations, and discuss something publicly. Which unfortunately he already put out there.
Cruz: I will say that it was made public that he sent you a scathing letter and said that you’re a liar, you’re duplicitous, you are uncooperative, etc.
Abeigon: Well, anyone in Newark that knows me, I’m the most cooperative person in this city. But when you send me a letter on Oct. 6 and then that letter you put down that you’re willing to offer us $20 million over the life of a four-year contract — I am just reminding you that his budget is $1 billion a year — so out of $4 billion, you want us to discuss how we’re going to share amongst 4,000 members 0.005 percent of that. That’s not being honest, that’s not being fair, that’s not even being knowledgeable of what other districts in the state are settling their contracts for.
Cruz: In addition to money — which I guess is always a sticking point in union, management negotiations — is there a fundamental, philosophical difference between where your union system sees this going and where the management sees the system going?
Abeigon: Yes. We’re strong supporters of community schools, community-based organizations assisting us, parent organizations assisting us, basically it’s the same model that works successfully in over 500 districts in this state. Our bad luck is that we’re stuck with reform-minded corporate charter school administrators who feel that paying teachers and school psychologists what they deserve, and what they’re worth, is not acceptable to them.
Cruz: Let me get a quick answer because I only have about 20 seconds left. Do you think that the charter schools have played any positive role for students in Newark?
Abeigon: The corporate charter schools in the city of Newark have been nothing but a plague to this district. They have sucked the district out of $275 million last year, an additional $275 million this year and — not unlike parasites — they have taken but given nothing back to the city or the district. It’s unfortunate, because there are students, in the vast majority of Newark public schools, that go every day without resources and the district cries, well we don’t have the appropriate funding. Well, apparently you have funding for corporate charter schools, you have funding for 10 administrators at the top level of your leadership team that are not certificated or qualified to do their jobs, but you can’t afford to provide a bilingual department or bilingual resources in a school district where 46 percent Hispanic students or special education?
Cruz: All right, let me leave it there. Obviously more to come on this. John Abeigon is the president of the Newark Teachers Union. Thanks for coming on, John.
Abeigon: Thank you, Dave.