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

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Do We Need Tenure? Ask Elizabeth's Teachers

My post about Mike Mignone, the brave teacher and union leader in Belleville, NJ who is up on tenure charges, went viral this week. Mignone has been on unpaid leave pending his hearing; he alleges it's because he asked dared to question his school board about an outrageous surveillance system that includes a camera and microphone in every teachers lounge. That system cost $2 million, money teachers and parents told me is desperately needed to buy modern textbooks and computers.

It's also worth noting the firm that got the contract to install the system hired the brother of the board attorney and the son of one of the board members. Golly, what are the odds?

We'll have to see how this all plays out, but the charges against Mignone stink of retribution. Had he not had tenure, he would have been fired on the spot, quite possibly becoming toxic enough that he would have to leave the profession altogether.

This is the side of tenure publicity hounds like Campbell Brown don't want to talk about: tenure isn't just teacher protection, it's taxpayer protection. Brown would have us believe that there are scads of "bad" teachers everywhere. What she and her ilk never seem to acknowledge, however, is that there are plenty of districts, like Belleville, where tenure is perhaps the only thing that is keeping the entire system from sliding into chaos and corruption.

Here's another example: Elizabeth, NJ.
ELIZABETH - Is the woman who blew the whistle on the Elizabeth school lunch scandal facing retaliation for speaking out? A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds her position has been eliminated and she's been forced to spend her last weeks on the job alone in a small windowless office.
"They placed me in a room, completely isolated, by myself," Carmen Southwood tells News 12 New Jersey's Walt Kane. "Bare walls, no phone, nothing."
If the accommodations are unimpressive, Southwood says the assignment is even worse. She says she is literally being paid to do nothing, and no one interacts with her. It started a couple of weeks ago, when Southward was told her contract as a food services supervisor would not be renewed at the end of the school year. She says other employees she knows of in that situation were permitted to continue working for the duration of their terms or were sent home with pay, and only she was banished to a "rubber room."
"To do that to someone is really to try to play psychological games with their minds and to try to break them," Southwood says. She is convinced "without a doubt" that she is the victim of retaliation.
Law enforcement sources confirm that in 2011, Southwood blew the whistle on corruption in Elizabeth's school lunch program, giving information to several different law enforcement agencies. The information led to the conviction of former Board of Education President Marie Munn. Munn was sentenced to community service last month for obtaining free and reduced price lunches for her kids, despite a family income that was far too high to qualify. Criminal cases against several other board and district employees are ongoing. [emphasis mine]
According to a 2011 investigation by the Star-Ledger, this is quite typical for Elizabeth's schools.
Patti Gallante, a teacher now retired from the Elizabeth public school system, said only one thing about her job ever scared her: the school board. 
Through e-mails and political mailings to her home, Gallante said she would constantly get solicitations from members of the city's board of education, asking for money. There were dinners, cocktail events, testimonials and tables of tickets to be bought and sold. It was a nonstop stream of beseechings. 
To Gallante — worried, as many teachers were, about promotions and prime school assignments — the implied threat was clear. "You buy the $125 ticket because you are scared," she said. 
The Elizabeth Board of Education, with more than 23,000 students and a $402 million budget largely subsidized by Trenton and another $20.5 million in federal aid, is one of the New Jersey's largest and, to some, a top urban school district. 
But a four-month investigation by The Star-Ledger, drawing on interviews, lawsuits and internal documents, shows it can also be a relentless political machine fueled by nepotism, patronage, money and favors, using its nearly 4,000 employees as a ready-made fundraising base. 
Internal documents show friends and relatives of board members scattered through the payroll. 
Teachers and other employees, who kick in tens of thousands of dollars in donations, say they feel pressured by supervisors and board members to buy tickets to fundraisers. They say they are reminded that attending campaign events is in their best career interest. 
Testimonial dinners are held to honor the superintendent and president of the board of education — not to raise money for scholarships or education, but to funnel more into campaign coffers. 
Campaign finance records also show lucrative contracts go to vendors who support the board at election time. [emphasis mine]
Can you imagine how much more out of control this would be if teachers didn't at least have the protections of tenure and seniority? Carmen Southwood can.

All of you reformy types who are so hellbent on gutting tenure have been getting away with weak arguments for your position. Vergara has changed that; the conversation is now shifting over to what an actual tenure-free world looks like.

It's time to start answering some hard questions. How will you tenure bashers assure taxpayers that districts without tenure won't turn into nests of corruption and nepotism?

Careful! Cartoons like this can get you fired: ask Ted Rall.

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