With promises of support from elected officials and the leaders of a variety of community groups, the chief organizer of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) today said its members would set up picket lines around schools, begin a rule-book slowdown, and refuse any volunteer work before or after school. The immediate cause of the “job action” was a decision by the district’s state leaders to include eight more schools—including Weequahic and East Side high schools– in a controvesial reform program that would weaken employee rights in the affected schools.
But the union and civic leaders made it clear they were reacting to four years of radical change imposed by Cami Anderson, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to run the Newark schools four years ago. Shouts of “Enough! Enough!” echoed through the NTU headquarters as Abeigon and others promised action against the 20-year-old state regime.
“We will stop covering up this crime,” John Abeigon told nearly 100 of the union’s supporters at a press conference at NTU headquarters. “We will stop being co-conspirators in the dismantling of public education in the state of New Jersey and the city of Newark.”
In four years of struggle between Anderson and a growing number of residents and their leaders, a score of public schools have been closed, privately-operated charter schools have expanded in ways Anderson admits robs money from public schools, and hundreds of teachers have been laid off or assigned as “educators without placement” –fully-paid teachers without regular jobs whose salaries consume nearly $30 million in public funds every year.
Although anger has grown among employees, parents, students, and others, the various groups have so far failed to find a way to channel that hostility effectively to combat Anderson. She has refused to meet with residents publicly for more than a year and generally has ignored the criticism directed against her. Through state education Commissioner David Hespe, nominally her boss, Christie has praised her, given her contract extensions, and increased her salary.
Anderson clearly will stay for as long as Christie wants her to stay. He has told the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka—who was elected in an anti-Anderson campaign—that he, Christie, not Baraka, is the “decider” of what happens in Newark. Christie has said he doesn’t care what Baraka thinks.
Baraka was not present at yesterday’s press conference but Dr. Lauren Wells, his chief school officer, told the group the mayor would support what the teachers decide to do.
“Enough is enough,” Wells said. “This is not how you change the schools. “
Wells referred to Anderson’s policies of closing neighborhood public schools while expanding charters as a ”plan to divide and destroy our neighborhoods.”
She told the teachers, “We support you.”
It was unclear just how far that support would go. Strikes by public employees are illegal in New Jersey and they rarely garner the support of elected officials. If, however, the teachers did strike, Baraka would have great influence in preventing the kinds of mass arrests that marked the 11-week strike in 1971.
Mildred Crump, the president of the Newark City Council, was more direct. “I will support you,” she told the teachers. “I am not afraid.”
Five members of the Newark school board also showed up to show their support—leading to the possibility that Newark might be the scene of the first teachers’ strike supported by its local school board. The state has stripped the board of most of its powers, but the members do act as a barometer of anti-state feeling. Earlier this week, a slate of pro-Baraka, anti-Anderson board members were elected.
Abeigon sought to persuade the supporters of a job action that the state administration had broken the law and teachers were complicit in allowing her to continue. He cited the many unsuccessful efforts by his union and other groups to seek redress.
“We can no longer sit by and watch the needs of special needs children go ignored by the New Jersey Department of Education and the US Education Department,” Abeigon said. “We cannot watch as children are baby-sat each day of the school year by substitutes or inexperienced and uncertificated new teachers who struggle day in and day out in their new careers without resources or mentors as required by law.”
He accused Anderson is using veteran teachers as “scapegoats for every failure she creates.”
Abeigon promised to “force the moment to its crisis—we will say no and we will escalare the chaos.”
What could spell genuine trouble for Anderson and Christie is the expressed willingness of community groups to join with the teachers in imposing crippling job actions. The relationship between the teacher union and community groups often has been fraught with tension. But yesterday, leaders like Deborah Gregory, the head of the Newark NAACP, and others urged the teachers to greater militance.
“It’s about time,” she said. “You’ve been quiet too long. You’ve been cooperative.”
Gregory conceded she knew many teachers were afraid for their jobs but she noted—and this could be a decisive factor in the struggle—“the layoffs are coming anyway.”
Widespread support for a job action might become a national embarrassment for Christie as he takes his still-unannounced presidential campaign to Iowa and New Hampshire. Leaders of a utility workers union hinted strongly lights could go out in school headquarters.
One of the most ominous warnings directed at Christie and Anderson came from a leader of growing organization aimed at ending urban violence—the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition (NAVC). The NAVC has proved its ability several times to shut down traffic thrghout the city in its street rallies against community violence. Paralyzing Newark would bring national attention on the failure of Anderson to bring acceptable reform to the Newark schools. Leaders of the major business—like Prudential Insurance—might reconsider their support for Anderson and a 20-year state regime that has failed to improve the city schools.
So it mean something when NAVC’s Sharif Malik Amenhotep forcefully endorsed the NTU promise of a job action and told the crowd:
“You know we will shut down whatever you need to shut down.”