This reflects poorly on Cerf and the NJDOE for several reasons: first, LEAP has failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for years, yet is allowed to continue to operate while other, less-favored charters are shuttered. Second, the failure of LEAP to manage its finances is an indication of a lack of proper oversight from the NJDOE. Third, just this week, LEAP's founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, has been accused of using LEAP's funds and staff for her personal benefit.
Yet Cerf happily cut the ribbon this past fall on LEAP's brand new STEM building:
Why would Cerf allow his personal reputation to be tainted by LEAP? What is it about the school that appeals to him so much that he is willing to overlook its grave flaws and be seen as one of LEAP's biggest supporters? What is it about LEAP that is so attractive to a public education privatizer like Chris Cerf?
To answer this question, we need to go back a few years...
CAMDEN — Teachers at Camden's first charter school yesterday voted, 33-20, to unionize as members of the New Jersey Education Association.
Teachers at the LEAP Academy University Charter School, on Cooper Street in downtown Camden, work more days each year while earning less money than teachers at other city schools, said Tammy McGinley, a second-year art teacher who led the union drive.
"We want the math to start to make sense here," she said. "Teachers have so much to add to the dialogue of this school, but they haven't had a way to get to the table."
Charter school teachers typically negotiate their own salaries each year with a school's board, and often earn less than public school teachers. LEAP teachers made a median salary of $35,000 in the 2002-03 school year, about $3,000 less than the statewide median for charter schools, according to the state Department of Education.
The starting salary for a first-year public school teacher this year was $37,365, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. [emphasis mine]
The teachers at LEAP had actually been trying to organize since 1997. LEAP teachers were working longer hours than their colleagues and making less money. But it became evident that this wasn't the only problem.
The NJEA started tracking employee relations at LEAP and documented its side of the story in its membership newsletter, NJEA Reporter. I'll grant you that this is only one side of the story; however, the facts as listed by NJEA Reporter are not in dispute as far as I know:
For the teachers at a small charter school in Camden, the struggle for justice continues.Let's, again, stipulate that there are two sides to every story. But even if we question this report, it's clear that NJEA themselves saw this as a victory. That alone would be enough to draw the ire of union busters everywhere.
Plagued by a tyrannical administration, teachers at the Leadership, Education, and Partnership (LEAP) Academy Charter School, have been continually thwarted by LEAP founder Gloria Bonilla- Santiago as they sought to exercise their legal rights as recognized NJEA members.
But no more.
Though they have yet to win the full war, members of the LEAP Academy Teachers Association (LATA) have won a major battle that will benefit NJEA members for decades to come. After filing a series of Unfair Labor Practice charges with the state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) against LEAP Academy in September 2004, LATA’s win has set the bar for all future administrative standards of conduct toward union members and their representatives.
On Dec. 19, PERC Hearing Examiner Arnold Zudick issued a decision that NJEA network attorney Steven Cohen calls “…the closest I have ever seen to achieving total justice.”
Unlike previous favorable decisions where only a measure of justice was achieved, all four counts charged against LEAP were granted in full.
In essence, the decision prevents administrators from retaliating against any employee who exercises his or her rights to organize a union and to function as a union member. The decision further decrees that LEAP administrators’ overt hostility toward the union’s 2004 organizing drive, as well as their efforts to punish the teachers for their actions as union representatives, tainted the administration’s ability to be objective in all their dealings with the LATA. [emphasis mine]
Cohen was contacted in April 2004 by NJEA Region 4 UniServ Rep Sharon Allen as she fought to help LEAP teachers organize and become a recognized affiliate of NJEA. Santiago and LEAP Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Branch were continually foiling the teachers’ efforts to vote on NJEA affiliation. Leading the organizing campaign was LEAP Academy art teacher Tammy McGinley, who worked tirelessly to promote her colleagues’ right to organize after witnessing the anti-union actions of Santiago and her fellow administrators.I can imagine the thrill that just went up the legs of Chris Cerf, Chris Christie, and Michelle Rhee when they learned about LEAP's use of merit pay.
“The amount of illegal activity that occurred at this school was widespread,” said McGinley, citing the multiple observations and denial of raises over the years that her colleagues endured. If Santiago did not want to give out raises, she would simply change the level on a given teacher’s “pay for performance” evaluation, which was imposed by LEAP administration. According to McGinley, “It was surreal.”
Santiago created a climate of fear, vowing that NJEA would only come to LEAP Academy “over her dead body,” and promising she would shut the school down if a union were formed.A climate of fear. Merit pay, inevitably used as punishment for compliance. A staff that wasn't organized. High turnover rates. A poorly paid and demoralized staff. Sounds like the dystopia reformyists dream about.
Prior to Allen’s arrival, anyone who previously had attempted to organize at LEAP was terminated. The turnover rate at the school was astronomical, and each time a new person came in, he or she had to be covertly educated about union membership and convinced that forming a union was the only way to stop the administration’s illegal behavior. By the time of the 2004 affiliation vote, only one teacher from the school’s 1997 original staff remained.
Santiago went on to give the new local a very, very hard time in contract negotiations. And her merit pay system - which obviously did nothing to help LEAP meet AYP - remained in place. She continues to serve as the Chair of the Board of Trustees at LEAP, and maintains close ties to the South Jersey Democratic machine of George Norcross. In fact, when the NJEA criticized Norcross for jacking up their members' benefits contributions for Norcross's benefit, Santiago stood behind him:
Joining with Norcross today at a late-afternoon press conference were former Gov. Jim Florio; Newark Mayor Cory Booker; Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive-director of the Black Ministers of New Jersey; Msgr. Michael Doyle, Pastor of Sacred Heart R.C. Church in the Camden Diocese; Chancellor Wendell Pritchett, of Rutgers University, Camden; Jeannine LaRue, a former NJEA senior executive and a former senior aide to Gov. Jon Corzine; and Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, Board Chairwoman of the LEAP Academy University Charter School. [emphasis mine](Big surprise Cory Booker was there too, huh?)
When Chris Cerf cut the ribbon at LEAP's new building, and when he was ignoring LEAP's poor academic record, and when NJDOE wasn't doing their job and allowed LEAP's tax-exempt status to expire...
Was Chris Cerf aware of Santiago's long history of anti-union behavior? Was NJDOE aware of LEAP's history as a school that fights against union representation for their members?
Is that why LEAP gets the blessing of its regulators and the South Jersey machine, while other less-favored charters are left to twist in the wind? And is the real agenda of the charter cheerleaders not "choice" and "innovation," but straight up union busting?
You tell me.
Accountability begins at home.