A conspiracy to deprive teachers of their rights

David Hespe
David Hespe

When a school district wants to fire a tenured teacher, its chief administrator files charges against the instructor with the state education department, an agency that supervises the procedure and, under the law, ensures due process in an adversarial proceeding between the district and the teacher. That’s the theory anyway. In reality, however, the state education department under Gov. Chris Christie has proven  biased against teachers–especially when the district is Newark and the administrator bringing charges is Cami Anderson.

The evidence of collusion between Christie and Anderson is strong and borders on–if not crosses the border into– a conspiracy to deprive teachers of their civil rights. Of course, no prosecutor in New Jersey, state or federal, has the chutzpah to conduct an investigation.

At the core of the conspiracy is the new tenure law, TEACHNJ, and its enforcing regulations, ACHIEVENJ. They require that any teacher who has received two consecutive poor ratings in annual evaluations within three years automatically be brought up on tenure charges of “inefficiency”–basically, incompetence. School districts throughout New Jersey were given until this past school year–2013-2014–to develop evaluation standards that could be used to try to fire tenured teachers. A number of school districts, including Newark, were allowed to become so-called “pilot” districts during the previous school year, 2012-2013–to test out those standards–for themselves and for the edification of other districts.

No one–not even the top officials of the state education department–anticipated that the pilot year would count as the first of the two consecutive years a district could use to fire teachers based on two bad annual–or “summative”– evaluations. This is what the education department said in a question-and-answer document it posted on its website:

“Q: Will summative ratings ‘count’ this year (2012-2013) toward tenure decisions?

“A: No–the only item ‘on the clock’ is the mentorship year for new teachers.  No evaluation outcomes in the 2012-2013 school year will impact tenure decisions. 2013-2014 is the first year where the statewide system will be in place, and the first year when the summative rating ‘clock’ (ie: teachers needing to be rated at least effective for two of three years) will start.”

Ok, the grammar is horrendous, but you get the idea. These words are clear: “No evaluation outcomes in the 2012-2013 school year will impact tenure decisions.”

The Q and A was on the state education department site for at least a year–but then it was taken down. The timing for the take-down was at best curious: It was taken down just days after lawyers for Newark teacher Sandra Cheatham–a 40-year veteran of the school system–filed their answers to tenure charges brought against her by  Cami Anderson. Anderson relied on two bad annual evaluations–2012-13 and 2013-2014–to try to fire Cheatham.

An arbitrator rejected Anderson’s effort. He cited the Q and A and a lot of other evidence as well, including the statute and the regulations. Within weeks, another arbitrator threw out a similar charge against Neil Thomas, a popular science teacher whose son Jordan, now a Princeton University freshman,  just happened to be the student member of the Newark school board. Just before Jordan left the board–and before his father faced tenure charges–he publicly lambasted Anderson. Jordan, who had remained silent about the superintendent for the entire school year,  accused Anderson of a “district-wide initiative to ensure the perpetual deterioration and failure of strong Newark Public Schools and the rapid proliferation of corporate-backed charter schools.”

The arbitrator also cited the guidance given to school districts–but he also cited another document: A letter from Peter Shulman, an assistant education commissioner, to Charlotte Hitchcock, the lawyer for Anderson’s administration, that tried to cover up the bait-and-switch in the Q and A.

Shulman wrote that the language about using 2012-2013 ratings was meant only for non-tenured teachers, not tenured. “Through this guidance, The Department sought to clarify when summative ratings would count toward earning tenure.” Emphasis in the original.

Earning tenure, not losing it. But that just isn’t  what it says. It says tenure decisions–and firing a tenured teacher is certainly a tenure decision.

If I were Shulman, I would be embarrassed at having to concoct such blatant rot. He clearly must have done it at the direction of Acting Commissioner David Hespe–and I’d be embarrassed if I were he, as well.

There is so much more that is wrong with Shulman’s letter beyond the fact it contradicts plain English and common sense. The arbitrator in the Thomas case called the letter “problematic” and “inconsistent with previous communications.”

Here’s another reason why it’s problematic. Shulman, who is supposed to work for an agency legally neutral in tenure cases is writing this letter to the lawyer for one of the parties–but not both. In other words, Shulman–who copied the letter to  Hespe, a lawyer–is taking legal positions and commenting on evidence in a contested matter.

No, that’s not right.  If a judge sent a private note to just one party in a contested matter, he or she would be subjected to discipline.  The lawyers responsible for keeping the education department neutral–starting with Hespe–have the same responsibility. Please take note, State Supreme Court, something is rotten in the state of New Jersey.

Something else: After I read the Cheatham decision, I filed an Open Public Records Act request about the take-down of the tenure “guidance” posted on the state’s website. I asked for “any and all correspondence between and among staff members, whether through written, emailed, or any other medium of communication, in which the decision to remove that page is discussed.”

The state education department didn’t send it–despite a reference in the letter from Shulman to Hitchcock saying the agency was responding to questions from teachers. Those questions would be covered by my OPRA request. Shulman’s letter also is copied to Hespe and Patricia Morgan, the department’s lawyer,  certainly “staff members.”  The letter itself should have been sent in response to my OPRA request. The leadership of the education department violated OPRA.

Top officials of the state education department are conspiring with top officials of the state-administered Newark school district to deprive teachers of their tenure rights. Plain and simple.

 

 

 

 

13 comments

  1. Jdtmar

    Bob,
    Thank you for giving teachers a voice and giving the community a very small glimpse into their world. The injustice is evident and in some schools, administrators like Principal Maria Merlo and her lackey Vice Principal Paul Oliveira, are doing the same thing, lying and contriving information. Dictators who manage their staff through threats, harassment and intimidation. The staff is scared to come forward given the number of tenure charges and transfers at Lafayette St School. These two administrators have done their share of lying…documents in order to go after teachers – great teachers – who now, although the arbitrators made the right decision, have to clear their name. Yes, clear their name!! Because, unfortunately, many people don’t realize that there is evidence that was submitted for Ms. Cheatam & Mr. Thomas of blatant discrimination, retaliation, harassment and falsification of documents to name a few- their battle will go on in a true court where these… spineless administrators will have to answer and hopefully pay for their abuse of power!!

    Bob Braun: Toned this down a bit to protect you. Your points are made.

  2. DeeplyConcerned

    The DOE and other state agencies only release documents Christie wants us to see. This is the same DOE that, according to an article on NJ.com yesterday, denied an OPRA request seeking the job posting for a high-paying (unposted) job given to Joe DiVincenzo’s son, claiming it didn’t keep such records. Really?! Do we look that stupid?! Remember also that Cami Anderson filed a seniority waiver request earlier this year that would’ve had the effect of unlawfully removing teachers’ tenure rights while protecting nontenured teachers.

  3. Rev. Tony Johnson

    There is a lot to be angry about in New Jersey. The fact that the media play footsie with Christie, Anderson, Booker, etc. is as enraging as what these politicians are doing. Unless this is reported in the Star-Ledger and New York Times and on media like WBGO and WNYC and drive-time commercial radio, people are not going to understand the reality of the war on education — that it is dishonest, underhanded, and driven by profit-making corporations that want to turn education on its head and make it a profit center — and that this war is a conspiracy whose leaders include Democrats and Republicans who don’t give a damn about students, teachers, retail workers, or anyone other than their corporate and political cronies. Bob, you need to be on op-ed page of the Times and on the Brian Lehrer Show (WNYC) and Newark Today (WBGO). If The Nation picked it up, some of the liberals who have been bedazzled by the Oprah-Booker glitz might get it.

    • Tony

      This is a national problem that has been ongoing for more than a decade. Oprah is part of the problem. Democrats are part of the problem. Republicans are part of the problem. Civic leaders that are quick at the tongue to say schools are broken are part of the problem. The fact is that after a long legal battle across states it was time for states to pay up but no state wanted to. Everyone has all but forgotten Abott cases across the nation and the battles for funding which make a difference and quickly followed the narrative “money is not the problem” teachers are the problem. At some point the firing of teachers will end across this nation and we will blame somebody else may parents that aren’t involved or students who don’t have grit. The fact is that we will do anything but educate children and we are all to blame!

  4. Galton

    Mr. Schulman,
    “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
    A quote from a time now forgotten. A time when temerity and mendacity were assists to public servants in power.
    Eli Broad must be quite proud of how Schulman and Cerf control their flock.
    Educators across NJ prepare to be sheared.

  5. Anonymous

    I served as a teacher liason on a District Evaluation Advisory Committee (DEAC) for one of the AchieveNJ pilot districts and you’re right on the ball on this. Repeatedly in our committee, administrators and teachers were told and reminded that the summative evaluations during the pilot year would NOT count towards any tenure charges. Shady actions like this are why teachers have little faith in the integrity of the NJDOE and see the AchieveNJ project solely as a means to undermine job protections, not raise student performance.

  6. Another concerned teacher

    I have been in the classroom of Ms. Cheatham and witnessed superior teaching each time. So, what is this situation REALLY about?? The newly created teacher evaluations are nothing more than a way for “superiors” to exercise unrighteous power trips over those who do not completely agree with these “superiors”. The observations are entirely subjective; another way to perpetuate the “bullying” so prevalent in our state. Teachers have little freedom to speak up when they have ideas to improve the education of our children, often thanks to the Common Core which tells us what we must teach. Also too many “magic bullet” new programs every other year- a waste of money quite often, while trying to increase the scores. Our children’s learning is impeded by societal issues, much more than by ineffective teachers. This is the truth. Won’t anyone believe those of us in the trenches, giving our lives to your children? We need an open dialogue as teachers have little freedom to speak the truth, in many ways. Except for this opportunity offered by Mr. Braun. Listen if you really care-please. Newark is not the only town with serious issues.

    • Galton

      Concerned Teacher,
      Yes you are in the trenches. There was a time when that metaphor refered to the battle being waged to meet the needs of children of disadvantage. Teachers, principals, counselors, aids, crossing guards, volunteers and many others gave of themselves to fight the forces of poverty, planned resegregation and opportunity gaps. Now however, “in the trenches” refers to the war against both the middle class and PUBLIC SCHOOLING.
      Broadie Peter Shulman is the Chief Talent Officer for the NJDOE. When Cami Anderson blatantly tried to abuse her authority by ignoring the effective date of the ALEC written TEACHNJ Act, Schulman could have made a statement to the educators in NJ. He could have said,NOT ON MY WATCH. But he took the path of the moral vagrant. HE REVEALED HIS BOSSES DISTAIN FOR THE EDUCATORS IN NJ by trying to construct a laughable defense of an obvious abuse. To hell with Newark trench workers!
      You dear educator have a new foe to battle. Bless you for your work, watch your back, you are alone.

      Imagine though if The NJDOE actually were on the side of good educators. How long would someone like Shulman last? A day? A week?

  7. Another concerned teacher

    I have been in Ms. Cheatham ‘ classes numerous times and witnessed superior teaching in each instance. Consequently, what is the situation concerning withdrawal of her tenure REALLY about? Another example of the dangers of the new teacher evaluation system? Proof of how subjective this system is? It serves the evil designs of the “superiors”, without reflection of the truth. Manipulation and control. Another way to bully, which seems to be the mode of control in our state now. And they have promoted an anti – bullying campaign? What hypocrisy. Can no one acknowledge that most problems in our schools germinate in societal issues, not ineffective teachers? We dedicate our lives to our students, but work in the fears of becoming the target of the week. Aren’t we all on the same team? Apparently not. We have lost our freedom of speech, as teachers. We must “lay low” in fear to protect our jobs, instead of being free to speak our ideas about what WE observe in our schools. Does no one value the truth anymore? As teachers we need to unite and get rid of this phony “evaluation” system, if we can, to protect our colleagues from the pain Ms. Cheatham and others must be living with. Let the truth be heard from those who work in the trenches every day, caring about our students. Mr. Braun, any ideas on how we may proceed to free ourselves from this subjective evaluation system?

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