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

Monday, June 23, 2014

Why Do We Need Tenure? Ask Belleville's Teachers

In the wake of the truly awful Vergara decision, there have been plenty of reformy types crowing that we just don't need teacher tenure any more. "There are more than enough protections for teachers against vindictive administrators and school boards!" they claim. "Tenure just isn't necessary!"

These people need to take a trip up the Garden State Parkway and visit Belleville, NJ -- home of the most egregious example of why teachers need tenure I've ever witnessed.

BEA President Mike Mignone, with NJEA officers Sean Spiller, Wendell Steinhauer, and Marie Blistan.

This evening, I'd estimate easily a thousand people gathered on the grounds outside Belleville High School to rally to the aid of the president of the Belleville Education Association (the local teachers union), Mike Mignone.

Included in the crowd were the entire NJEA leadership, including current president Wendell Steinhauer and former president Barbara Keshishian; teachers union leaders from 12 different counties; teachers union leaders from Newark's NTU; the president of the Belleville Fireman's Association and many of his members, truly Belleville's Bravest; hundreds of teachers from literally all over the state; and concerned parents and students from Belleville, a town that is seeing its dedicated teachers pay the price for its school board's and its superintendent's incompetence.

Of course, they weren't there only for Mignone; they were there because his case threatens both Belleville's schools and the future of the teaching profession in New Jersey. They were there because his case demonstrates clearly why America desperately needs to reinvigorate its labor movement. They were there to show unity in the face of ineptitude and intimidation.

They were there because, ultimately, they have all had enough.

It's going to take a series of posts to tell the entire tale of how Mike Mignon has become New Jersey's poster boy for tenure: the story is so twisted and so disgraceful a single piece can't possibly do it justice. But let's start by giving you the basics, which I will flesh out over the next few days.

To put it charitably, Belleville's schools have been very poorly managed. The district's budget is so bad that the state appointed a fiscal monitor this year to try to restore some financial sanity. Teachers and parents both told me that the schools lack contemporary textbooks, modern computers, and even the infrastructure necessary to administer the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests mandated by the state for next year.

Perhaps the worst decision the district made over the last few years was to install a state-of-the-art surveillance system in all of its buildings; yes, a "surveillance" system, not a security system. Every classroom in every building is wired for both video and sound -- including the teachers lounges!

That's right, my fellow teachers: in Belleville, a camera and microphone monitor every word uttered in the teachers break room!

But that's not all: all Belleville faculty, high school students, and middle school students must have special ID cards with them at all times. These ID's include "RF-tags," which are radio frequency devices similar to what you'd find in an EZ-Pass. They were originally used to track cattle: now, they track the positions of all staff and all students at all times.

That's right, my fellow teachers and parents: in Belleville, the movements of students and faculty are tracked at all times! Big Brother better not find out if you snuck off to the bathroom before the bell...

I asked several parents at the rally whether they were ever asked for their permission to require their children to have an RF-tag on them at all times; every one told me they were never asked. The teachers, it goes without saying, find the entire system insulting and degrading, to both themselves and their students. According to a union survey, more than half of the members of the BEA feel intimidated in the workplace, and three-quarters felt their participation in union activities would result in negative consequences.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I tell them about the resume of Belleville's superintendent, Helene Feldman: she cut her teeth -- surprise! -- at the NYCDOE, under reformy Joel Klein and reformy Chris Cerf (and those are a couple of guys who really know how to get teachers and parents on their side...). NYC is, of course, the training ground for the increasingly unpopular Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden and the spectacularly unpopular Cami Anderson in Newark.

Only a superintendent who served under Klein and Cerf would ever think teachers would take kindly to having their classrooms and lunch breaks and bathroom trips monitored.

The real kicker here, however, was the price: $2 million dollars. Just tonight, the state-appointed accountant who looked at Belleville's budget told the crowd at the board meeting that the district was $3.6 million in the red for next year -- and that's after having used up all of its budget surplus. How in the world does the Belleville BOE justify spending all that money on this obnoxious surveillance system when they can't even afford textbooks and computers for the schools?

When the system was booted up this past fall, the teachers union decided they'd had enough. It was bad enough the board wasted this money on invasive technology that wouldn't do anything to stop a Sandy Hook-like attacker. It was bad enough that teachers were now being watched constantly, as if they worked in a Soviet reeducation camp. But all of this had been implemented without the benefit of any negotiation, a clear violation of the collective bargaining rights of the BEA.

Mike Mignone, as president of the union, started speaking out. A 13-year veteran math teacher with a spotless record, beloved by his students and fellow teachers, Mignone wasn't going to just sit by and watch his members continue to be harassed and intimidated. He demanded that the board and the superintendent explain themselves: where did they get the funds for the surveillance system? Why was the time between the advertisement of the bid and the final decision less than two weeks? Why did the entire bidding process stink of nepotism?
After it obtained the job, Clarity also hired relatives of two key people at the school district, the brother of school board attorney Alfonse DeMeo, who approved the contract and first introduced Clarity to board members; and the son of Board of Education Trustee Joe Longo, who spearheaded the security upgrade. Longo insists he never asked for special treatment for his son and Kreeger denies that politics were involved in either hire. Kreeger also says he eventually terminated Longo's son because of public criticism, even though he was a model employee. [emphasis mine]
Mignone was making things very uncomfortable for the board and the superintendent by speaking out. He was putting a lot of people in difficult positions by calling for transparency and demanding that taxpayers get clear answers about how their money was being spent.

Guess what happened next?

As Mignone's lawyer puts it: in October, he found out; in November, he spoke out; in December, tenure charges were filed against him. Mignone, who had always had excellent reviews, suddenly found out he would be up on charges that included (get ready for this one) answering students' questions about the surveillance system. According to Mignone, his students asked him questions about whether they were being monitored; he took a few minutes out of class and gave them some honest answers. That, in this board's and this superintendent's minds, counts as a fireable offense.

Golly, I wonder how the board knew Mignone had talked to his students about whether someone was listening in on their classroom conversations...

Mignone was suspended with pay for three months; as of this spring, he has not received any pay, pending his hearing. The case, of course, is utterly absurd: any arbitrator who upholds the charges would have to be insane. Which is exactly the point:

If New Jersey didn't have tenure laws, Mike Mignone would have been fired on the spot -- all for the sin of daring to stand up for the taxpayers and teachers of his town. Mignone's case is the perfect illustration of how tenure not only protects teachers, but also taxpayers.

There is so much more to this story: I could write a movie starring Joe Pesci after everything I heard tonight. But I'll just add one more thing before closing this chapter:

NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer addresses the crowd at Belleville High School.

Tonight was amazing. Not only was the Belleville community out in full force: there were teachers in their local union shirts from Mahwah, Glen Rock, South Brunswick, Summit, Ramsey, Bergenfield, Mercer County Vo-Tech... everywhere around the state. It was an amazing show of support for one man who has been grievously wronged by trying to do right.

This is how we fight back. This is how we make them pay for striking at us. This is how we win.

When they go after one of our own, we all have to get together and say: "Enough." When a good man and a good teacher pays a price for speaking out, we must all demand that justice be done. We simply can't afford to stand by idly anymore and let others fight for us. We must have each others' backs -- all of us.

Lord knows I can't go to every rally and every union event; no one could. But we all have to start stepping up our game. We have to make the commitment to do whatever we can to help out each other. All hands on deck.

Our students and our families deserve no less. As does a hero like Mike Mignone.

ADDING: It is so enormously gratifying when you come up to me at these things and tell me you enjoy this blog. So many of you were so generous with your kind words this evening. Many, many thanks.


Deb said...

I was born in Belleville. This story is just incredible. People have to know what's going on!

Suzanne Libourel said...

Thanks for covering this and explaining what is going on in Belleville. We all - educators, parents and community members - need to know the real story and support those who speak up for our schools and our students.

Unknown said...

I was there last night and the support from around the state was amazing. The Belleville teachers and community members who spoke at the board meeting were brave and articulate. Anyone who wonders why we need tenure needs to read this article.

Giuseppe said...

What a horror story torn from the pages of Orwell, Huxley or Kafka. Surveillance cameras with audio capability in all the classrooms and the teachers' lounge??! The teachers and staff must be constantly on guard, constantly watching over their shoulders, they never have a relaxing moment in this soft core prison. I guess the main office of the school is bugged but what about the nurse's office and the principal's office? What about the school counselor or school psychologist, would her room be bugged, too? The younger teachers and the teachers near retirement will probably be bailing out of this dystopian hell hole. Did they have to hire an extra person just to monitor all the TV sets for the whole day?

G. Gales said...

Star Ledger continues its Belleville news blackout. What a disgrace.

Giuseppe said...

Mike Mignone is an incredibly brave man who deserves an award (not suspension or punishment) for speaking truth to power right to their faces and accusing them of nepotism, nonfeasance, incompetence and of being ineffective. This is a clear abuse of power by the school board, superintendent and administrators. These are very dangerous times for being a teacher in the US.

Giuseppe said...

Video of Mike Mignone confronting the school board in May. I can only wish to have half the courage of this man:

Russ Walsh said...

Thanks for this report Jazzman. There is little question that a Vergara type suit will come to New Jersey soon. Collecting abuses like this will hopefully strengthen the case for the need for tenure.

P. Grunther said...

I was there and yes it was incredible to see people travel hours to be there and support a teacher who risked and still risks by speaking out. Thanks JJ for spreading the word on this - you are so right...all union members and anyone who supports free speech and basic human rights needs to step up and get involved.

Anonymous said...

I teach in Oakland, California, and while we do not have to endure the deplorable big-bother-like conditions that exist in Belleville, I am at the mercy of the Vergara verdict... We all have to be ready to stand up and fight for our craft and career especially in today's climate... Beautiful to see all the folks who stood behind Mignone.

bethree5 said...

As a NJ parent & taxpayer, & free-lance educator to areas near Belleville, I am embarrassed, shocked & saddened that this can be happening in our state. Tho I'm not a union member I support you all & congratulate you for coming to the aid of this badly-treated member.

Unknown said...

I grew up in Belleville and moved back recently when my mom passed. My one regret is not researching and discovering how bad the Belleville public schools have become since I graduated (many) years ago. I've encountered more than one teacher in this town who won't even send their own children to school here. I've met a couple others, and I wouldn't trust them to teach my dog, let alone my children. So now I have to pay taxes to support these folks and pay for private school so my kids can avoid them. Perhaps I'm missing the point, but I don't have the time or money to deal with this nonsense. Let them lose tenure. Close the whole damn system down. Ridiculous.

Giuseppe said...

Just great, Michael H.
He knows some teachers and based upon that .001% sample he not only wants to take away tenure but he wants to close down all Belleville public schools. Now that's ridiculous. In essence, Mike wants to fire all the teachers, administrators, nurses, social workers, school psychologists, janitors, cooks, etc., because he knows some supposedly lousy teachers.

Duke said...

G, stand by -- a new poll out today pretty much proves America is stunningly incoherent when it comes to teachers and schools. Post shortly...

Unknown said...

Giuseppe, you're putting words in my mouth while devaluing my position. To an extent I empathize (although I often wonder why tenure is exclusive to teachers). My point was this system, here and now in Belleville, is clearly failing. It makes me frustrated, and I don't see why I should pay to fix something I will never benefit from. Selfish? Perhaps, but I can't afford charities.

My daughter starts kindergarten in September. I'm paying for this circus and my daughter's tuition for private school, as I was essentially given no choice (thus my comments). From the ratings to the horse's mouth, Belleville public schools are generally unacceptable. Am I to ignore it's own teachers keeping their own kids out? They've explained their reasons to me, and they align with what Mike Mignone has been saying. Is he also "lousy"?

You all might be willing to let your children's education and experiences suffer through all this, but I refuse (even if that risk of being attacked and called things like ""stunningly incoherent"). And so saying "I don't care if the system is closed" is an irresponsible, emotional response -- but I will never apologize for loving my children too much.

escowler said...

This is truly one of the worst cases of systemic teacher abuse I've ever heard of in America not to mention fiscal irresponsibility. I've worked for great administrators but unfortunately, most of the administrators I know were mediocre teachers with a talent for posterior kissing. Nepotism is rampant in education as is poor administration. If you want to lay the blame for the ills of education at someone's feet, lay it at the feet of administrators. They were the ones who allowed bad teachers to remain when they could have them removed before they got tenure. They are the ones who make these fiscally irresponsible decisions. They are the ones who will capriciously fire highly effective veteran teachers because we speak out. Most are so far removed from the classroom that they simply don't have a clue what the job entails anymore.

Giuseppe said...

Mike Mignone is objecting to the surveillance cameras with audio capability throughout the school. He's not objecting to the Belleville schools, their teachers or the education being offered. Mike Mignone is objecting to the nepotism and the possible malfeasance of some board members not to the many dedicated and hard working teachers in Belleville. So how many Belleville teachers are sending their kids to private school? Did you make an actual survey? Is it 20%, 40% or 50% of the teachers who send their kids to private schools?

Giuseppe said...

Mike, you got an education in Belleville schools paid for by all the tax payers some of whom had no children or whose kids were grown up and no longer in the schools. We all benefit from having public schools which invest in our future, the children. A good private school usually has very small class sizes, can be selective about the pupils that enroll at the school. Private schools do not take in all the pupils as do the public schools and can get rid of behavior problems or kids with serious disabilities.

Unknown said...

Giuseppe, no, I didn't take a survey of teachers. I'm not trying to justify a political stance or convince you of anything. My personal data acquisition, despite being anecdotal in nature, was enough for me based on the sources to make a decision for my family. Mike Mignone's objections, school ratings, personal experiences and interactions as well as the seemingly endless stream of articles about what's wrong with Belleville's school system (as a result of the current spending, political issues, etc.) raised every red flag for me. For example:

"State numbers say Belleville public schools generally lag behind local and state averages, according to the new School Performance Report issued recently by the state Department of Education. In addition, This district is rife with issues: Nearly 40 involuntary transfers have occurred within the district since September, the majority of which involved an active BEA member; Four unfair labor practices and countless grievances have been filed; Several BOE members are facing ethics charges for abusing their position; Lack of basic school supplies and textbooks; Antiquated and inoperable classroom technology; District funds have been mismanaged and misappropriated; Mike Mignone has been banned from district buildings, leaving him unable to visibly meet and represent his members."

This is a far cry from when I received my public education, some 20-30 years ago. Clearly these issues won't be resolved any time soon, and I need to spend an exorbitant amount of money out of pocket to avoid them. I don't have the resources to fight for improvements, and I don't want my children involved in the collateral damage. As a result, my (admittedly) emotional response is I simply don't care about the value a public education provides to Belleville, and I resent having to pay for it. I find it highly unlikely anyone on the internet is going to change my point of view, but it is amusing seeing you try.

Giuseppe said...

I can only admire that you are willing to make a financial sacrifice so that your children will have a great education. All the best to you and yours.

Kent Sommer said...

Mine was a commuter school mainly. So, you get a lot of native students. Though we had visiting lectures from people like Aloke Ghosh, in my day it was a lot of local people. I am not sure why but it was the general makeup of my student body at the time.