When I reached out to my contacts in the Newark Teachers Union, I was looking for a response from them regarding the news, first reported by the estimable Bob Braun, that a Newark parent group, PULSE, was pushing a federal investigation of the state-run school district's restructuring plan, One Newark.
As I wrote in a series of briefs with Bruce Baker this past year, One Newark is a racially biased plan -- and that bias includes racially disparate impacts on teachers of color. If PULSE was setting up a lawsuit over the effects of One Newark, and, as Bob reported in another story, the feds are investigating charges of racial bias against administrators, where is the NTU? Are they involved with these lawsuits and investigations, and are they planing any of their own?
So I asked the folks I know at NTU if they had any comment. They, in turn, said I should speak to Del Grosso, the president of the union since 1995. But as we talked about the lawsuits, one thing led to another, and we wound up having a wide-ranging conversation about Newark, State Superintendent Cami Anderson, Governor Chris Christie, and several other topics.
In fairness to Del Grosso, I'm going to report our conversation without comment in this post; later, perhaps, I'll add my own opinions.
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I first asked Joe Del Grosso if he supported the PULSE lawsuit: "Oh, absolutely." According to Del Grosso, NTU is partnering with the Abbott Leadership Institute and other organizations, including parent groups, to help bring legal actions. But why doesn't NTU act on their own?
"Because Chris Christie would love it," answered Del Grosso. "He'd see himself as following in the steps of Ronald Reagan, breaking unions. I'm sure he's making that calculation as we speak."
It's clear that Del Grosso is concerned that Newark's teachers could easily become pawns in Christie's plans to run for president. But does that mean the union can't act? What about striking?
"If we went on strike it would cost this union between $100,000 and $200,000 a day. Christie would decertify us and fire all of our members. And even if I called a strike, we'd only have maybe eleven people out on the lines anyway."
"Our members want to fight this battle, but they understand the consequences. They don't want to strike when it's illegal. Other strategies have to be employed. We've got to disrupt the market and find alternative ways to win."
Would that include trying to get a legal injunction against One Newark before school starts in the fall? "The courts aren't going to do anything by September," replies Del Grosso. "But we're meeting with parents and other community groups."
So why not publicize some plans now? "When you go to war, you don't put your battle plan out in public,"says Del Grosso. "We have to work quietly now because we are in a war of occupation: the state is occupying Newark."
Del Grosso is well aware of dissent within his own union, but he has little patience for his critics who call for more radical actions: "What they know about unionism wouldn't fit in a thimble."
That said, it's apparent Del Grosso and NTU are going to have to fight for their members within the structure of the tenure system. I asked if he felt any of his members had been unfairly dismissed under One Newark.
"Of course," he replied. NTU, according to Del Grosso, has 62 tenure cases pending; while not all are directly tied to One Newark, the majority are related, or were brought by principals the district has since fired.
"Many of these are trumped up tenure charges: teachers with twenty or twenty-five years of excellent service who suddenly are judged ineffective. Our members are tired of being policed by someone who only taught for two weeks themselves. It's blatant disrespect."
Which brings up the subject of Anderson. Del Grosso's disdain hasn't diminished; if anything, he has even less respect for the district's leadership than he did before. Even Beverly Hall, the former Newark superintendent now under indictment for fostering widespread cheating in Atlanta (Del Grosso is on the witness list for that case), garners more of the NTU president's respect than Anderson.
"Beverley Hall was a lot smarter and more qualified than Cami Anderson. She lacks the knowledge or the ability to be able to know when enough's enough. I've never met anyone as shallow or who has such a lack of understanding of public education. Because of that, she doesn't have the ability to understand when someone is offering her a good deal."
Del Grosso contends that Anderson is not following the provisions of the controversial contract he negotiated with her back in 2012. "She is in absolute violation of the contract. There is supposed to be a peer oversight committee, but she refuses to put it in place." Has she outright refused, or has she just not followed through? "She'll say, 'We'll do it soon,' but she never follows through."
According to Del Grosso, Anderson hasn't spoken to him in "seven or eight months." She refuses to attend meetings with John Abignon, the NTU's director of organizing. Del Grosso says that he is scheduled to meet with her and Education Commissioner David Hespe next week; at that meeting, he will broach the subject of the district's legal bills.
"The district needs a full-fledged audit. They spend five or six times what has been budgeted for legal fees. There is a $50 million to $100 million deficit."
"Not only are Newarkers being robbed of educational opportunity; not only are Newarkers being robbed of their right to vote. But New Jersey's taxpayers are being robbed of $100 million."
"Christie says he's a real conservative. But what could be more 'Big Government' than the state takeover of a local school district?"
"We've had Bridge-gate; we should now be looking at School-gate."
And that, it seems, is the calculus Del Grosso will continue to make for at least the near term: everything in Newark hinges on Chris Christie and his political ambitions. "Let's hope his ego is so big that he believes he can be the president and winds up leaving the state."
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A final thought: I'm not an NTU member, but Del Grosso gave me a good bit of his time to have his say. I haven't always agreed with the tactics of NTU, but I really do appreciate that he was willing to speak with me.
More to come.
Joe Del Grosso, President, Newark Teachers Union.