I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, November 29, 2013

When "Reform" Is Really Union Busting

Once again, here's NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf on teachers unions:
I always look forward to this event and I'm really delighted. And I want to extend my appreciation particularly to the leadership of the NJEA, with whom I feel that we've had a sometimes spirited discussion, but always a positive and a respectful one.
As I documented in that post, Cerf's words in no way match the actions of his boss, Governor Chris Christie, who has shown enormous disrespect to both teachers and their unions. But the hypocrisy only starts with Christie; you see, when Chris Cerf's people actually get out into the field, their anti-union leanings also start coming out.

Take Tim Capone, newly arrived from the NJDOE to the superintendency of Highland Park:
Scores of Highland Park residents and union supporters came out Monday night to the auditorium at Bartle Elementary to protest layoffs of nine staff members at Highland Park's schools, including two top union officials.
The school board and administration were literally surrounded by critics: So many people showed up that they had to take out a partition in the wall, doubling the size of the room and letting the overflow crowd tickle into the nosebleeds.
And after some brief introductory remarks, including a slideshow presentation defending the layoffs, board members and school administration mostly sat expressionless as speaker after speaker alleged that the move was tantamount to union-busting and that the superintendent has hired too many top administrators at the expense of front-line workers.
"This is not how we do things in Highland Park," said borough resident Darcie Cimarusti, a soon-to-be board member who was elected in November.
Regular readers here know Darcie as Mother Crusader, New Jersey's best parent-blogger and a good friend to yours truly. She won the election but is not yet on the board; let me have her tell you what's happening:
Yup, that's right. The Board, at the recommendation of our brand new Superintendent, approved a Reduction in Force (RIF) of nine district employees on November 4th, 2013. The RIF included the President and Vice-President of the Highland Park Education Association, and came after contract negotiations reached an impasse.  (Note: A tenth employee was RIFed on October 7th, 2013 but this position is often not added to the nine RIFed on 11/4) 
Almost everyone that spoke, save one lone voice of support for the Superintendent and the Board, expressed concern on a myriad of topics. The RIF was not the only issue. The creation of two new six figure Central Office positions, including a second Assistant Superintendent and a "Data Analyst," was a hot button topic. 
"We now have almost as many superintendents as we do schools, and a data analyst to tell them how great of a job they're doing," said Samuel Shiffman, a teacher in South River whose three children attend Highland Park schools.
So here we have a brand new superintendent, coming straight from Cerf's NJDOE, who fires the president and vice-president of the teachers union during a contract negotiation, and replaces them with more bureaucrats who will be "analyzing data." I honestly can't think of a more blatant example of union-busting.

Why would a brand new superintendent do this? Why would he immediately alienate his staff in this way? Where did Capone get training and experience that would lead him to think this is the way to run a school district?

Darcie knows:
Capone was hired fresh out of one of the NJDOE's Broad funded Regional Achievement Centers. 
This brief bio reveals that prior to being the Executive Director of the Region 4 RAC he was a "turnaround" principal at a Race to the Top school in Delaware.  

Capone's history was deeply concerning to me as someone who has been immersed in the state and national debate over education reform and policy for more than two years. When Capone was hired I tried to keep an open mind, but I was nervous. 
And now my community is nervous too.  
"Broad funded": as in Eli Broad, the California plutocrat and patron to Chris Cerf. The man who has been training a corps of school "leaders" in the ways of "disruption."

It's becoming a pattern here in Jersey: brand new superintendents, all with ties to either NJDOE or Cerf directly, take over a district and start getting everyone angry. But I'll give Capone credit: at least he has some experience in running a school, even if he oversells himself:

"Within one year, we went from being one of the lowest performing schools, to being a superior rated school by the [DE] Department of Education."
Let's get the timeline straight: Capone was appointed to Howard High as its new principal in February of 2011. In August of 2012, NJDOE announced he'd be taking over one of the RACs. Which means, at most, Capone had been at Howard for a year-and-a-half. Let me ask those of you who work in schools: in your experience, can principals come in and "turn around" a school in a year? Can they make changes that quickly that dramatically affect student performance?

Howard High is a vo-tech school; as such, it is a school the students apply to for admission. Nothing wrong with that: not only am I in favor of vo-tech, I think we need a lot more of it. But let's not pretend that gains at a "choice" school are the same as gains at a school that does not require students to apply for admission. In any case, compared to the other schools in Delaware's "Partnership Zone," Howard's gains in proficiency rates weren't far superior; they were actually pretty much in line with the others.

Look, everyone likes to pump themselves up a little; everyone likes to believe they are good at what they do. I'll gladly concede that Capone had some successes in Delaware before he came to New Jersey. The problem seems to be, however, that he has taken the reformy creed to heart: over-confident in his own abilities, he believes that building consensus is a sign of weakness, and his idea of "reform" has to be imposed from the top down:
Another person who will soon be out of a job is Kathleen Ketofsky. She's the school system's substance abuse counselor. She also helps students deal with eating disorders, depression and bullying. The students she helps counsel have been coming up to her to tell her they're upset that she'll be out of a job, after 12 years with the district. They're not alone. 
"I'm devastated," Ketofsky said. 
Andrew Yeager, who represents counselors like Ketofsky at New Jersey schools, said that her departure will be a major blow to education in Highland Park. 
"You can buy all the state-of-the-art technology in the world, it won't make a difference if your students are being bullied, are anxious, are afraid, are depressed," Yeager said. "It's catastrophic."
Firing an experienced counselor in the middle of the year to shift funds over for more computers is not going to earn you a lot of fans - especially when you're also firing the leaders of your teachers' union. And most especially when you then spend more on administrators:
Much of the dissatisfaction in the crowd surrounded Capone, who was hired in August (one speaker exuberantly called for Capone's resignation, pumping her fists to the raucous applause of the crowd). 
Speakers criticized Capone's hiring of a second assistant superintendent and a data analyst, each with six-figure salaries. It's created a district that's too top-heavy, critics said. (In his letter, Capone said that administrative salaries are down $133,000.) 
"We now have almost as many superintendents as we do schools, and a data analyst to tell them how great of a job they're doing," said Samuel Shiffman, a teacher in South River whose three children attend Highland Park schools.
Well, it's like I told the Perth Amboy board: you hired this guy, and now you've got to justify yourself to your teachers, your parents, and your students. Good luck with that...

In the meanwhile, let all teachers unions be on guard: the minute you hear a new superintendent start talking about "reform," hunker down. No matter what you may be told, he or she is almost certainly coming after your association. And we all know where that's coming from...

I like this guy in Highland Park! Maybe I'll make him my next Education Commissioner!

ADDING: Here's a statement from the local union:

Press Release
Highland Park Schools Superintendent Makes Rash and Callous Personnel Decisions
--School Community Plans a Turnout to Oppose Pink Slip Decision-- 
Highland Park, NJ, Nov. 14, 2013:  Parents, Teachers, and School Support Staff plan to assemble at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting to oppose the Board’s decision to terminate 9 school employees within the next 60 days, including the Highland Park Education Association President and Vice-President. 
The Highland Park Education Association (HPEA) contends that the elimination of the job positions is retaliation for HPEA activities that have occurred over the last several weeks. Those activities include:
 ·       Notification to authorities of potential threats made to a teaching staff member and students·       A mutual declaration of impasse during the bargaining process·       The filing of a grievance on behalf of a member·        A challenge to the President’s negotiated terms and conditions of employment·       A request by the Association to review secretarial workload at the high school 
NJEA Uni-Serv Representative Nancy Grbelja stated, “The intent of these firings is not for the Board to save money as it claims, but because Superintendent Tim Capone wants to cover up his real intent to terminate the union leadership.”
 She added, “The superintendent has only been employed by the district for 50 days and the professionals he’s put on the chopping block are required to leave mid-year. He hasn’t considered the years of service employees have in the district or the pension system. He does not have a plan for how the work will be absorbed or how the district will maintain its level of service to the community. School employees are part of the Highland Park family and don’t deserve the way they have been discarded.”
Way to make friends and influence people there, Tim...


ellen rosner said...

Hello Jazzman,
You ( and your readers) might be interested to know that this Sat, Dec. 7, there will be a public discussion of the situation, with speakers. Here are the details.
Thank you for an excellent blog post.
Marc's Place - Special Coffeehouse –
Saturday, December 7, 7:30 pm
Reformed Church, 19-21 South 2nd Ave., Highland Park

"The Attack on Highland Park Schools and Workers - And How We Might
Fight Back"
Less than 2 months after hiring a “turnaround” superintendent, the
school district just fired the president and vice-president of the
union as well as 7 others and is now poised to implement further
restructuring based on the standardized testing/"state reform"model.

Speakers from the Highland Park Community:
Darcie Cimarusti
Bobbie Theivakumaran
Gabriel Trevor

Coffee and cookies will be served
Admission is free, but donations are gratefully accepted.

Parking is accessible from municipal lot at rear of the church. Enter
lot from Magnolia Street between South 2nd and 3rd.

Sponsored by Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War

For further information call Ellen at 732-771-7882 or Dorothy
at 732-235-1444

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hello Jersey Jazz,

Many in Highland Park are really unhappy with the hiring of Mr Capone. So we've decided to do a little digging and discovered that Mr Capone was terminated from his Principal job within his first year.

Here is the document of the personnel minutes in which you will see that a unanimous Board voted to terminate him.

Many here in Highland Park are wondering how we have the privilege of getting such an esteemed candidate with an impeccable record.