Newark Teachers Union seeks contract extension beyond 2019 deal under local control

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In negotiations for a new contract, the Newark Teachers Union is seeking higher salaries, increased autonomy, and greater respect for teachers, according to John Abeigon, the union president.

The union and the district began their negotiations on Jan. 11, and if approved, this will be the second contract for teachers since the state ended its takeover of Newark Public Schools in 2018. It will also be the third union negotiation under Superintendent Roger León, who was appointed by the city’s school board in 2018. The new contract will replace the current one, which expires at the end of June 2022.

Nancy Deering, the spokesperson for Newark Public Schools, did not provide a comment regarding the start of contract negotiations.

The end of the state’s takeover of the district marked a significant shift for teachers, who have long been grappling with the deteriorating conditions in city schools and their roles within them.

The union’s previous contract, signed in 2019, abolished the practice of basing teacher salaries on student performance and instead focused on years of experience and educational qualifications. Past contracts resulted in contentious negotiations and public disputes between the union head and state-appointed superintendents Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf.

From 2011 to 2015, Anderson, who was superintendent during that period, closed and consolidated schools, leading to an influx of displaced educators in the district. She also oversaw the expansion of charter schools in the city. Cerf, who succeeded Anderson in 2015, faced criticism from teachers and community advocates for his support of charter schools and his decision to close underperforming schools in Newark.

John Abeigon, the union president since 2015, now maintains a more cooperative relationship with Superintendent León. However, regardless of the negotiating counterparty, Abeigon’s team is focused on advocating for better working conditions for teachers.

Abeigon stated, “We will continue to fight for the gains we secured in 2019, but we aim to go beyond that and create a haven for teachers who deserve the recognition their profession demands.”

According to Abeigon, negotiations between the union and the district will continue every Thursday until an agreement is reached.

Salary Increases for Teachers

In 2019, the union finalized a deal for raising salaries by 2.9% in the first year, with subsequent increases reaching a cap of 3.3% in the 2023-24 school year. The contract also included salary bumps for teachers with advanced degrees, substitute teachers and aides, as well as additional planning time.

Presently, the union is striving to secure the highest teacher salary nationwide, as confirmed by Abeigon. According to data from the National Education Association for the 2021-22 academic year, New York’s teachers currently have the highest average salary in the country, with some earning over $90,000 annually. In New Jersey, the average teaching salary is approximately $79,000 per year.

In June 2022, the district agreed to increase the starting salary for new teachers to $62,000 annually as part of its recruitment efforts to address staffing shortages during the pandemic.

According to Abeigon, higher pay not only recognizes the dedication of teachers who continue to address the negative effects of the pandemic on students, such as learning loss and increased mental health needs, but also contributes to the retention of teachers. The district has faced challenges with teacher and principal turnover, and Abeigon believes that providing higher salaries will enable them to attract and retain the best educators.

Enhancing Working Conditions to Retain Teachers in Newark

However, Abeigon emphasized that salary alone is not sufficient to retain teachers in the district. To achieve this, he believes that uniformity and greater participation of teachers in decision-making processes are necessary.

Abeigon asserted that teachers should have more educational responsibilities and less pressure to fulfill duties beyond their teaching role. Some teachers have been assigned tasks such as serving as security guards or addressing classroom issues outside of their primary responsibilities. Additionally, district leaders should prioritize the morale of teachers and staff, as burnout and frustration are prevalent.

Abeigon envisions a “teacher-led” school district that relies on everyone fulfilling their duties.

“The level of morale in a school speaks volumes about its condition. Some schools have extremely low morale,” said Abeigon.

Furthermore, Abeigon noted that some teachers are frustrated with frequent changes in curricula, ineffective professional development, and a lack of understanding regarding the challenges they face in the classroom. To address these concerns, the union plans to establish a curriculum committee at the school and district level, dedicated to overseeing curricula across different grade levels and collaborating with teachers to improve lesson plans. The ultimate goal is to achieve uniformity district-wide and empower teachers to make decisions about teaching and learning.

“Let’s replace unnecessary mandates and time-consuming data consumption with educational responsibilities,” added Abeigon.

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