Q&A

‘The war on teachers still exists.’ Newark Teachers Union chief on the Janus ruling, Roger León, and threats from Washington

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
"We took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists," said NTU President John Abeigon.

The past few weeks have been a rollercoaster ride for Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

The high point came on July 1 when Roger León, a veteran Newark educator, became the district’s new superintendent. Abeigon had fought incessantly with the previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf, protesting his confirmation vote and trading insults with him in the press during contentious contract negotiations. León, by contrast, is Abeigon’s longtime acquaintance who held a two-hour introductory meeting with the union’s leadership soon after he was selected as schools chief.

The low point arrived on June 27 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public employees who choose not to join their labor unions no longer must pay fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. The case, which was bankrolled by anti-union conservative groups, was brought by a state worker in Illinois named Mark Janus who argued that he should not be forced to support a union whose political views he disagreed with.

“In Newark, we have a word for a guy like that: Jerk-off,” Abeigon said in an interview last week at the union’s four-story headquarters near City Hall. “‘Free rider’ might be more politically correct. But that’s just jerk-off by another name.”

In Newark, about 93 percent of the roughly 4,000 teachers, aides, and clerks represented by the NTU are full members, Abeigon said. They pay 1.1 percent of their annual salary in dues — or about $770 per year for a teacher earning $70,000 annually. The remaining employees are so-called agency-fee payers, who pay .85 percent of their salary to the union, or $595 per year for someone making $70,000.

As a result of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Janus, the union can no longer charge such fees. That means any NTU member who wants could end their membership but still enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining for free. Abeigon said none of his members dropped out after the ruling — but they only had four days to decide before the union’s July 1 enrollment deadline. It’s possible more could leave when the next window opens on Jan. 1.

During the hour-long interview with Chalkbeat, Abeigon gave his take on the ruling, the new superintendent, and the issues he’ll raise when contract negotiations with the district start this fall.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Chalkbeat: The Janus ruling was a major blow to unions that could leave them with less money, members, and political clout. What will it mean for your union?

Abeigon: Right now, Newark has no one requesting to drop out.

It makes sense given what we’ve been through in the past 10 years with [former superintendents] Cami Anderson and Chris Cerf attempting to annihilate us. It doesn’t make sense to drop out. It’s not worth it. For $700 I’m going to kick my union in the face? After all we’ve been through? After all the wins we’ve had?

What incentive do your members have to keep paying dues?

The right to run for office, the right to vote for your union leadership. Access to discount benefit programs that we have that are only available to full-time members, access to professional development that we provide gratis.

What about representation if they come up for disciplinary charges or tenure charges?

Right now, [non-dues payers] would be entitled to that. However, [the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey] had a meeting yesterday. And there will be other meetings with the state legislature to correct that through the legislative process.

So essentially a law that would allow unions to only provide certain services to dues-paying members?

Correct.

It sounds like you’re also counting on your members to think beyond their personal financial interest and consider the greater good of the union.

We don’t have a separate source of income. We don’t sell T-shirts. We don’t invest in real estate. Our dues go to services and to protect members. If there’s no dues, there’s no service, there’s no protection. It’s that simple.

Our members know we’re not one of these unions that spend millions of dollars on staff and Cadillacs and vacations and conferences. I would say that 98 percent of union dues are spent on legal and professional services that we provide our members.

Some pundits have said the ruling could be a blessing in disguise to unions by forcing them to be more responsive to members and provide better services. Do you feel any pressure to be more responsive now?

If someone is working in a union that is not responsive and doesn’t provide services, this could be an incentive for that union to wake up and start listening to its members.

But if you look at the makeup of my executive board, my negotiation committees, my professional development committees, the workshops that we have here, I would argue there’s not a more progressive union in the state than the NTU.

So in your view, you’re already a responsive union that meets members’ needs?

Above and beyond.

Try to get in contact with another local union president while he’s on vacation through Facebook Messenger, and see if he responds. The staff in this building, we’re available 24-7.

Moving on to the new superintendent, Roger León. This is the first time the board has been able to choose a superintendent in over 20 years, rather than have one appointed by the state. And it chose a lifelong Newarker who’s a veteran educator. To you, what’s the significance of that?

It’s huge. It’s what we’ve been waiting for.

Now, not only do we have Roger, but we have [Gov. Phil] Murphy and [Commissioner Lamont] Repollet in the state Department of Education. So things should be a little more democratic.

And you know, democracy isn’t pretty. But there’s a process.

[León’s] going to learn where his role is as a superintendent who is answerable to a school board. And the school board is going to learn how to represent the parents to whom they’re responsible and the children.

How do you think your dealings with León, someone who’s from the district and worked here for over 25 years, will be different than they were with the state-appointed superintendents?

We’ll deal with him the same way we dealt with every single superintendent who preceded him. When they’re right, it’s because they listened to us, and when they’re wrong, it’s because they didn’t.

Tell me about León. Have you interacted with him over the years?

I’ve interacted with him a hundred times. I went to Montclair State with him; we took education law classes together.

Roger’s all about the kids. After that, he’s all about the teachers and administrators in the building who are in charge of providing those kids with an education.

Roger also comes from poverty. He went to Hawkins Street School as a child, and he still lives in the same house and the same neighborhood, and is loved and respected by the same people.

So it shouldn’t be all that difficult to express to Roger what’s wrong with a situation and how it can be remedied.

León also has a reputation for having very high standards. Is that a positive thing, or could it be a challenge for you if he thinks teachers are under-performing?

We expect him to be about high standards. But we also expect him to be about reasonable high standards.

If you’re in a classroom with 14, 15 kids, air-conditioned, parental support, you can have a certain expectation. If you’re in a classroom with 30 kids and it’s 105 degrees and gunshots interrupt the lesson, you have to adjust and monitor your expectations.

Does that mean lowering expectations for students facing those challenges?

No. But don’t expect the same results in the same amount of time.

One of the first things León did was force out 31 officials who were connected to his predecessors, Anderson and Cerf. What did you think about that?

It was a good start, but there’s still more of them to go.

Anyone associated with education reform or the corporate-charter school agenda needs to be identified, isolated, and let go. I would push Roger that anyone in the administrative sector who was hired by Cami or Cerf be terminated immediately.

You’ve called for Newark Enrolls, the district’s single enrollment system for traditional and charter schools, to be dismantled. But just recently León made a comment saying he was planning to keep it. Did that concern you?

Well it takes time to dismantle something, you can’t just dismantle it overnight. You have to replace it with something. I’ll give him time. But little by little it has to be demolished.

The purpose of Newark Enrolls was solely to put children in the empty seats at charter schools.

It had nothing to do with accommodating Newark parents. How do you accommodate a Newark parent by telling her that two of her kids are going to go to one school, and the the third is going to go to another school across town when she’s got a full-time job and has to get them to both schools?

León has limited control over charter schools. He can’t open or close charters, but he has talked about getting the two sectors to collaborate by having principals and teachers share ideas and best practices.

There’s nothing we can share. I disagree with him on that.

We have nothing to learn from the corporate charter industry. Everything that they use are things we’ve been arguing for for decades. We’ve been looking for legislation year after year to mandate a class-size minimum and maximum of 15 to 20 [students]. We didn’t need to learn that from them. We’ve been looking for that legislation forever. We can never get it.

Another issue you’ve brought up before are the extended hours at low-performing schools that was built into the 2012 teachers contract.

Another corporate-reform failure. It failed big because they thought they knew everything.

Every teacher can tell you that if you’re doing something wrong, or a kid’s not getting it, keeping him there an additional three hours a day is only going to frustrate him. It’s going to attack his self-esteem, and he’s going to act out. And that’s exactly what we saw happen.

So will you push León to get rid of that?

Yes. We want a restoration of the after-school program that has worked successfully in the traditional schools.

The contract that was negotiated in 2012 was considered groundbreaking. It had performance pay, longer hours for some schools, a new teacher evaluation system, and teacher raises.

We are a progressive union. We did negotiate those things.

And where they were successful is because we made them work. Where they failed is because the district was not being run by educators. It was being run by corporate charter reformers.

So now when the current contract is set to expire after this school year, will you try to keep any of those policies in the new contract?

We’re going to be trying to negotiate them all away.

Including performance pay?

Except for that. We have no problem with getting more money into the pockets of our members.

That’s what we’re about. We’re a union. It’s the Newark Teachers Union. A lot of people forget that. No, I’m not the parents union. I’m not the taxpayers union. I’m not the children’s union. The children in this city got more advocates than you can throw a…They got the [Advocates for Children of New Jersey], they got the Education Law Center, they got the parents and the other thing. Everyone and their mother in this city is an advocate for the children.

Wherever there’s a child in this city, one of my members is within three feet of that kid. You think I want any harm to come to that child? No, because the collateral damage will hit the teacher.

This moment seems like it’s been a bit of whiplash for your union. In Newark, you have a new locally controlled school board and a superintendent who’s an educator. But at the national level, you have a Supreme Court ruling that goes against unions. How are you feeling in this moment?

Locally, it’s a win that we’ve been working for for a long time — the return to local control.

But we were never not mindful that the war on teachers was a national one. And we took every opportunity to remind our members that the war on teachers still exists. That we may be lucky, we may have spared ourselves now, we may have found a moment to breathe without being directly attacked. But we still have to keep our helmets on for attacks that come from Washington.

But we’ll deal with it. We’ll survive those attacks, too.

Rock the vote

Not sure how to vote for Detroit school board? Read candidate answers to six key questions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Eight candidates are running for two open seats on the Detroit school board.

The eight candidates vying for two seats on the Detroit school board include a recent high school grad, a financial analyst, a former district superintendent, a youth sports coach, and religious leaders.

For the most part, they all say they want to help improve the city schools but they have different ways of getting there.

Some candidates say the district should close some of its smaller schools that aren’t fully enrolled. Others say they believe there are ways to raise the $500 million the district says it needs to bring its buildings up to modern standards.

Some candidates are open to collaborating with charter schools on things like enrollment and transportation. Others have concerns about collaborating with schools that compete directly with the district for students and staff.

Chalkbeat and Citizen Detroit surveyed school board candidates on six important issues facing the district. Seven of the eight candidates submitted written answers, either this week or last month in the lead-up to our school board candidate forum.

Scroll down to read their answers, which have been published verbatim, though they have been edited for clarity, spelling, grammar, and syntax. Read all of the candidates’ answers or click only on the names of the candidates you’re considering to see their answers.

Two seats are up for election this year. Deborah Hunter-Harvill is the only incumbent running for re-election. All seats on the seven-member Detroit school board represent the whole city, not smaller districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Amendment 73: Understanding the tax increase for education on your Colorado ballot

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat
Thousands of Colorado teachers protested for more education funding in April. What will voters say in November?

Colorado voters face an important education decision this November: whether to approve a major statewide tax increase for schools. This request represents the third time in recent years that Colorado voters have been asked to put more money into schools.

The last two times, they gave a resounding no. Amendment 73 comes on the heels of teacher protests here and around the nation that have raised awareness of low pay and other unmet classroom needs.

Proponents of the measure say Colorado schools can’t keep doing more with less and need new revenue to do right by students. Opponents say that raising taxes will hurt the state’s economic prosperity without necessarily improving student outcomes.

Here’s what you need to know to make a decision:

What does Amendment 73 do?

This measure would create a graduated income tax for people earning more than $150,000 a year and would raise the state corporate tax rate. It also would change the assessment rate — the portion of your property value that is taxed — for commercial and residential property.

Altogether, these changes are projected to raise an additional $1.6 billion a year for preschool through 12th-grade education. That’s in addition to the roughly $9.7 billion in federal, state, and local money that Colorado will spend this year on schools.

The amendment raises the base amount Colorado is required to spend on each student, and it also dedicates money to preschool spots, full-day kindergarten, students with disabilities, those learning English, and those identified as gifted and talented.

Why is this on the ballot?

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires that all tax increases be approved by voters. As for this particular tax increase, Colorado funds its schools below the national average, and since the Great Recession, state lawmakers have diverted to other areas billions of dollars constitutionally due to education.

Proponents of the measure believe the only way to adequately fund Colorado schools is to tap into an additional revenue source, like these tax increases.

Opponents counter that administrative spending has grown faster than student population and teacher salaries, and that the state and school districts could free up money for classrooms by setting new priorities.

I see amendments and propositions on my ballot. What’s the difference?

Propositions become laws and can be changed by the legislature. Amendments become part of the state constitution and can only be changed by another vote of the people. Amendments need the approval of 55 percent of voters to pass, a higher bar than propositions that only require a simple majority.

How will the money be spent? What guarantees do we have that it will reach the classroom?

Amendment 73 requires that new money “supplement and not supplant” existing funding. That means the legislature cannot redirect current spending on education and replace it with this new funding source. The amendment says the legislature should adopt a new formula for distributing money to districts that takes into account student and district characteristics, but it doesn’t lay out exactly what that should look like.

In the meantime, Amendment 73 describes specific uses for $866 million in new revenue:

  • Base spending per student will go up from $6,769 to $7,300, a 7.8 percent increase
  • Funding for full-day kindergarten. Right now, districts get a little more than half a student’s worth of funding for each kindergarten student.
  • An 8.3 percent increase for preschoool, bringing the total to $131 million
  • A 6.8 percent increase for special education, bringing the total to $296.1 million
  • An 80 percent increase for gifted and talented programs, bringing the total to $22.5 million
  • A 93 percent increase for English language learners, bringing the total to $41.6 million

The extra money that districts currently receive for students with disabilities, those learning English and those identified as gifted accounts for a fraction of the additional cost of educating them, particularly in the case of students with more significant disabilities. Districts have to use tracking codes to account for this money and ensure it goes to its intended purpose. In some districts, additional money might translate into better services for these students, while others might use the additional dedicated funding to free up other money.

That leaves $738.6 million that can be spent on public education as determined by the legislature. Once that money lands in school district coffers, they have broad discretion over how to spend it. This is by design and part of an effort to get buy-in from around the state. Many school boards have passed non-binding resolutions promising to spend the money on teacher pay, more mental health supports for students, and lower class sizes.

In turn, opponents have criticized the lack of specificity as a blank check that won’t necessarily increase teacher salaries or improve student outcomes.

A recent analysis from EdChoice found that since 1992, teacher salaries in Colorado had fallen even as per-student funding and the number of administrators had increased. Colorado Department of Education records show that instructional staff — teachers, counselors, speech language pathologists, school nurses — increased by 14 percent between 2006 and 2016 while administrative staff increased by 34 percent. School administrators argue these positions are necessary to support the work that teachers do and keep districts in compliance with a host of new state and federal regulations. In smaller districts, administrators often wear multiple hats. When we ask teachers about this issue, some of them share the concern that too much money gets spent on central administration, even as they also believe schools need more money overall

You can look up how much your district spends here.

What does it mean when people say Colorado schools are ‘underfunded’? Compared to what? How underfunded?

There are several different ways to look at this. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, ranks Colorado 28th in per pupil spending when state, local, and federal money is combined and puts Colorado about $758 per student below the national average. Education Week does a more complex ranking that takes into account regional cost differences and puts Colorado nearly $2,800 below the national average. Colorado teacher salaries are among the least competitive in the nation, making it hard to recruit and retain educators. More than 100 of Colorado’s 178 school districts operate on four-day weeks.

Back in 2000, after previous years of budget cuts, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment that requires school funding to increase by population plus inflation. But starting with the Great Recession, Colorado lawmakers have not allocated all the money required by that amendment. Over the past 10 years, Colorado schools have missed out on $7.5 billion the law requires them to receive. The courts have upheld this budget maneuver. Money from Amendment 73 could not be reallocated during the next downturn, protecting schools but potentially creating other budget problems for the state.

Colorado also gets low marks on equity. Colorado spends much less money on education than most states with similar levels of wealth and economic activity. Per-student spending varies widely around the state, with rich districts often getting more state money than poor ones. Some districts have convinced voters to approve local property tax increases, while other have not — or have such low tax bases that voters would need to take on large increases to generate much benefit. The additional funding from these local tax increases varies from $32 to $5,024 per student.

Amendment 73 wouldn’t change these structural problems with school funding. It would give state lawmakers more money with which to level the playing field. Right now, sending more money to some districts would require reducing funding to others, creating a political minefield.

Will I pay more in income taxes if Amendment 73 passes?

People who earn up to $150,000 a year will keep paying the same 4.63 percent state income tax rate they do now. Those earning more will pay a sliding increase starting at 5 percent for income from $150,001 to $200,000 up to 8.25 percent for income over $500,000. Someone with taxable income of $200,000 would pay an extra $185 a year, while someone with $1 million in taxable income would pay an extra $24,395, according to a fiscal analysis by the state.

The increases will affect about 8 percent of individual and joint income tax filers. Amendment 73 does not include a provision to adjust the income threshold for inflation, so it’s possible that more taxpayers will pay these higher rates in the future.

This change would generate most of the new revenue under Amendment 73.

What’s the effect on corporate taxes?

Amendment 73 would raise the corporate income tax rate from 4.63 percent to 6 percent. You can see how that compares to other states’ corporate income tax rates here. The average corporate income taxpayer would owe an additional $14,139, according to state fiscal analysts.

Would Amendment 73 raise my property taxes?

This is a complicated question. Amendment 73 does not raise property tax rates anywhere in the state. But if it passes, residential property owners will pay more in 2019 than they otherwise would have, while owners of non-residential property will pay less.

Amendment 73 fixes the assessment rate at 7 percent for residential and 24 percent for non-residential property. That’s lower than it is now, but other constitutional provisions would have pushed the residential rate even lower in 2019. 

Exactly how much more or less you pay will depend on your property value, real estate trends in your community, and local tax rates.

This represents a partial fix to a complicated fiscal problem that has bedeviled Colorado lawmakers and the administrators of rural taxing entities — school districts, fire protection districts, and others — for years.

In Colorado, your property is assessed at close to market value, but your local tax rate only applies to a portion of that value. That’s the assessment rate. Another constitutional provision known as the Gallagher Amendment ensures that non-residential property owners always pay a larger share of property taxes than homeowners. Since 1982, when the Gallagher Amendment was approved by voters, property values along Colorado’s developed Front Range have skyrocketed, putting the assessment ratios between residential and other property seriously out of whack. Those ratios apply statewide, and many rural communities have seen their already sparse tax base hollowed out.

In the case of schools, that’s meant the state government has had to backfill more and more money that used to be generated by local taxes. Amendment 73 includes a provision to hold the assessment rates steady just for schools for two reasons. One is that it provides property tax relief to ranchers and farmers, which the measure’s backers hope bolsters support in parts of the state that are traditionally more hostile to tax increases. The other is that it ensures the new tax revenue generated by the amendment doesn’t just backfill an ever-deepening hole in rural districts.

Residential assessment rates will continue to drop for other taxing entities, creating an even more complex system, unless the state succeeds in a more comprehensive Gallagher fix.

Don’t schools get a lot of marijuana money already?

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue for education goes to a program that helps schools pay for buildings and construction repairs. Districts apply and compete for grant money from the program, and in most cases have to put up some portion of the project’s cost. 

Starting this year, 12.59 percent of marijuana tax revenue is also set aside for the regular education budget. That’s about $20 million a year at current rates. Marijuana money is also set aside for various grant programs including one that schools can use to help pay for health professionals such as counselors or nurses. As the state collects more marijuana revenue, the amounts set aside for the grant programs has increased.

However, the marijuana money available to schools represents a tiny fraction of total education spending, and most of it can’t be spent on basic needs like teacher salaries or classroom materials.