Parents fight teacher layoff rules as Newark schools face $30M deficit

By Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on March 09, 2017

 

NEWARK -- One of the leading voices fighting to dismantle New Jersey's teacher layoff law that protects tenured workers is amplifying its message amid Newark public schools' looming $30 million budget gap.

The Partnership for Educational Justice organized the lawsuit filed by six Newark parents last year challenging the rule that requires layoffs be based on seniority instead of performance. On Wednesday, the PEJ released a short animated video targeting its message to parents.

"This law is hurting kids at a constitutional level," said Ralia Polechronis, executive director of PEJ. "The issue is very timely ... and critical for this coming school year."

Last week Gov. Chris Christie released school aid numbers, leaving Newark with flat funding from the year prior. PEJ and lawyers involved in the suit say Newark's static state aid furthers the urgency of overturning the layoff law known as LIFO -- last in, first out.

"If any layoffs come through and this law is still in place, I'm afraid for the children," said parent Fareeah Harris, 41, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the district and state.

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon defended the need for LIFO and said the union plans to file a motion to dismiss the suit.

"There's no evidence there that Newark students are systemically deprived of qualified teachers," Abeigon said. He said LIFO protections offered critical protections for older workers. 

"If teachers did not have seniority and contract protections in this state, they would be fired in a heart beat, regardless of their rating, just to appease budgets," he said. 

Tenured teachers "absolutely" have accountability because a district can level tenure charges against a poor-performer, he added. 

'Educators without placement'

Newark Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf said the district was still analyzing its budget numbers but estimated it would have to fill a $30 million hole. 

"Flat funding means we have a deficit by definition because of structural issues in our budget, some non-recurring revenues from other sources, increases in our salaries and insurance," Cerf told NJ Advance Media. "We've got to find at least $30 million one way or another in additional revenue or expense reductions."

He said it's not clear whether there would be layoffs.

Kathleen Reilly, an attorney representing the parents in the lawsuit, said even without any workforce reductions, children are hurt when the district is forced to keep veteran teachers with performance issues in classrooms. 

Newark spent millions on a pool of "educators without placements" who were languishing without assignments. Most were displaced by school closures, poor performance or ongoing tenure charges.

In the last two years, the district reduced the pool, returning many educators to the classroom. There's only about 100 people left in the pool with a combined salary of $8 million, down from $35 million in 2014, Cerf said.

"It was borderline unconscionable and I was forced to do that to protect us from going off the fiscal cliff," he said. "It has the effect of literally force-placing teachers in schools, they are not there on the basis on mutual consent."

Cerf declined to comment on the pending lawsuit but said LIFO is "absolutely hurting us." 

The district's former superintendent attempted and failed to secure a state waiver to avoid the LIFO rules during budget shortfalls.

During Christie's failed motion to slash state aid to urban districts and sidestep union contracts, Cerf submitted an affidavit detailing how LIFO has bloated the district's budget and handcuffed schools' ability to retain the best teachers.  

Cerf wrote the district was employing "more teachers than are needed" to avoid having to layoff high performing teachers at the expense of more senior ones. 

Polechronis said she hoped the courts would rule in time to impact next year's school budget. "The workaround the district has used isn't going to cut it anymore," she said. "We're hitting that trigger point now."

Ten other states across the country have similar layoff protections for tenured teachers and many have been challenged by reform groups. 

Polechronis said New Jersey was the fourth state to mount a legal challenge to such laws; similar efforts in California failed. She said the suit was not intended to overhaul teacher seniority. 

"It's completely wrong to say this is an attack on tenure as a whole," she cautioned. "LIFO only comes into effect when we're dealing with budget cuts, not other types of termination."

But Abeigon was resolute that LIFO was critical for older employees, who worked hard to earn tenure. He said teachers had to work and undergo evaluations for four years and a day to earn tenure. 

"Are we talking about what's best for kids or are we talking about what's best for the principal's budget?" he asked.

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