The decision by an arbitrator to dismiss tenure charges against Lafayette Street School teacher Sandra Cheatham was unquestionably a major victory for the 40-year veteran of the Newark schools–and for the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) and all city teachers. It exposed how far the state administration of the Newark schools will go to twist the law and logic in its bloodthirsty purge of instructors at the top of the pay scale. But no one should believe state-imposed superintendent Cami Anderson’s war against tenured teachers is over. It has just begun.
In announcing the decision, Joseph Del Grosso, the NTU president, declared:
“Justice has prevailed against an enemy of public education and the laws of the state. It’s a great decision for the teachers and the taxpayers of this state. As the decision pointed out, you shouldn’t get ‘two bites at the apple’ especially when you have bent over backwards, as this superintendent has, to poison the barrel. At great expense to state taxpayers, this administration displayed both its arrogance and ignorance in even presenting his case.
“Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bent towards justice in this case, as it will in many to follow, because of the determination of this Union and its Executive Board in protecting its members.”
Del Grosso is right. Anderson’s legal team did display both arrogance and ignorance in presenting a case that only the most morally bankrupt or legally unschooled arbitrator could have upheld. It showed just how desperate Anderson is in pursuing her vendetta against the teachers she blames for generations of the state’s failure to improve the schools in New Jersey’s largest city.
But far worse is coming. While the case saved Ms. Cheatham’s job and might save a handful of jobs for others this year, the most important grounds for the arbitrator’s decision won’t be available next year and, without action to remove Anderson and return local control, the prospects for experienced teachers is bleak.
This year, Anderson brought tenure charges against 72 teachers. Of those, fewer than two dozen cases remain unresolved because the targets of the superintendent’s venom retired or resigned to avoid having their names dragged through the slime that cakes everything she touches.
Next year, predicts Eugene Liss, the NTU counsel, Anderson is expected to bring anywhere from 200 to 250 tenure cases–and the primary legal argument that saved Sandra Cheatham’s job won’t be available.
Anderson’s lawyers tried to argue Cheatham had received two annual ratings of “ineffective” or “partially ineffective,” a circumstance that triggers tenure charges on the grounds of “inefficiency.” But the superintendent, clearly a warrior in Gov. Chris Christie’s war against teachers, counted ratings given to Cheatham during the 2012-2013 school year–when the new tenure law and its accompanying regulations, known as TEACHNJ, had yet to go into full effect.
In 2012-2013, Newark was chosen by the state to be a “pilot” program for TEACHNJ. Cheatham’s lawyers successfully argued that the ratings Cheatham received in the pilot year did not and should not count in the charges against her. The arbitrator, Steven Bluth, agreed. Citing the law’s requirement that school districts use the 2012-2013 year to prepare for implementing the new law and regulations, he wrote:
“The language of this requirement convinces me the 2012-2013 school year was essentially an ‘experimental’ one that would produce an evaluation system for 2013-2014….It is impossible this district could know what the regulations of the new law would required. Thus, it had no way of knowing whether it was in compliance with those regulations for 2012-2013 because they did not exist.”
But the regulations do exist now. And, by the end of next year, Anderson will clearly have the two years of experience with TEACHNJ so that teachers will not be able to make the argument Cheatham’s lawyers did.
“It’s going to get a lot worse next year,” says Liss. While Anderson’s legal teams tried other bizarre arguments in their charges against Cheatham–they tried to resurrect the procedures of the old tenure law while still relying on the new one–they were clearly dead wrong on the issue of whether 2012-2013 was an experimental year that couldn’t be used to detenure teachers.
Indeed, according to briefs filed in behalf of Cheatham’s case, the state Department of Education, in a question and answer document posted on its website, clearly said tenured teachers could not be fired relying on TEACHNJ for the 2012-2013 school year. That document has been taken down from the state’s website, although I have filed an OPRA request for it and for the reasons it was removed. Clearly, it seems state Education Commissioner David Hespe, like some character from George Orwell’s 1984, is trying to rewrite history. The truth was simply too inconvenient for Christie’s puppet.
Next year, all that will be irrelevant–and nothing much will stand between tenured teachers and Cami’s politically-motivated wrath. Or between teachers and state administrators in Paterson, Camden, and Jersey City. Or between teachers, even in suburbs whose instructors might believe the war isn’t coming to them. The new law ends tenure solely on the basis of two consecutive years of poor evaluations–and limits the power of arbitrators to look behind those evaluations to determine whether or not they were the products of personal animus, political tricks, or, simply, the fear of principals and other supervisors responsible for evaluations.
Anderson shifts principals around, virtually at will. As Wayne Dennis, the fired principal of Barringer STEAM, reported: If you want to keep your job, make sure you give a lot of ineffective or partially effective ratings to teachers. Cheatham, after all, worked at the same school that employed Neil Thomas, another veteran teacher who is the father of Jordan Thomas, the Newark senior–now Princeton freshman–who served on the Newark school board and criticized Anderson publicly. That principal clearly knows how to keep her boss happy.
The deck is stacked against teachers. The law is unfair. The officials charged with implementing it are biased and politically-motivated. Under Christie, commissioners like Christopher Cerf and David Hespe are simply tools in Christie’s game. Hespe had the power to block the case against Cheatham and, as a lawyer, he must have seen how flawed the case was–but he not only declined, he tried to change the rules of the game by taking down the website damaging to Anderson’s case. He also knows how to keep his boss happy.
And other arbitrators do not have to follow Bluth’s decision. A different arbitrator in a different case might decide Anderson was right–and that ruling might stick.
The problem is much bigger than this year–and this case.
Liss says he believes the new law makes teachers into “Roman galley slaves” rather than professionals. “It’s the law itself. It should never have been passed. It really ends tenure.”