Union refusal to support $30 million federal grant for Newark schools kills aid package

By Ted Sherman/The Star-Ledger
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on October 04, 2013

NEWARK — It was a late homework assignment and Newark school district officials missed the deadline Thursday, after teachers union officials refused to sign off on an application for $30 million in coveted federal Race to the Top funding.

The state-controlled district accused the Newark Teachers Union of playing politics, while its president, Joseph Del Grosso, said he was not asked for his input until Tuesday, criticizing the application as a waste of money.

"It’s riddled with pork," complained Del Grosso, who heads the 4,200-member union. "The thing should be called Race to the Hog because that’s what’s going on. It’s not about funneling money into classrooms."


Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson said the grant would have put a "tremendous amount of resources" into the schools, including upgraded classroom technology, and expressed bewilderment at the union’s refusal to green-light the grant proposal.

"I couldn’t be more shocked that we’re here. Last year we submitted a very similar application with a very positive letter from Joe," she said.

The district also said the union canceled several meetings to discuss the proposal.

The dispute led to an hours-long war of words, statements and e-mails between the two sides, as a 4 p.m. deadline for submitting the application came, and then went, with Anderson reaching out to Mayor Cory Booker, members of the city council and other community leaders in an effort to pressure Del Grosso to change his mind.

He never budged, arguing the application allocated no money for putting more teachers in classrooms.

Race to the Top applications are not valid without approval from the local teachers union.

District officials filed the application without the needed signature, noting in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan the nature of the dispute, and including last year’s signed agreement. While much of Washington remains furloughed by the Congressional budget impasse, the application deadline was not waived and the department was logging grant requests throughout the date, a district spokesman said.

The Race to the Top program, started in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education, rewards school districts based on student performance, school policies and the turn-around of poorly performing educational institutions. Newark applied for the grant money last year but was eliminated in the final round.

In 2010, New Jersey missed out on Race to the Top funding because of mistakes on the application that caused the state to lose out on $400 million in education funds.

A report last month by the American Association of School Administrators, meanwhile, has raised questions about the effectiveness of the program, concluding that it has done little to help most states close achievement gaps.

In the group’s report, it said states made unrealistic promises in order to secure Race to the Top funding and have found unexpected challenges to meeting their goals. The short time frame prescribed by the program also hampered state and district abilities to improve teacher quality, the report said.

Del Grosso said districts and states across the nation are finding that the costs for accepting Race to the Top grant money far outweigh the benefits.

"In Ohio, about 80 districts and charter schools across the state have backed out of the grant program since they won money in 2010, including an initial flurry of withdrawals because school officials realized that grants weren’t enough to cover the requirements attached to them," he said.

Del Grosso said he never even saw the application until this week, and said it included such items as $1 million for a student survey, another $6.8 million to hire outside experts on common core curriculum issues and $2.4 million for a data management system.

"I didn’t see one concrete thing in there showing money that would be spent well," Del Grosso said. "Many of the needs of our schools are being ignored in favor of providing additional money to consultants and third-party vendors."

The district, in a point-by-point rebuttal, said many of the issues raised by the union were contained in last year’s application, which it said Del Grosso had signed, or had been eliminated.

His refusal to sign left the application dead in the water.

"Federal grants have very specific guidelines," said Anderson. "It needed Joe’s signature."

Newark Councilman Ras Baraka called the whole dispute petty.

"At the end of the day, I think Newark needs the resources. We don’t have these kind of nonprofit organizations that are getting philanthropic dollars that goes directly to schools," he said. "We need the money, desperately. I’m not saying do anything for money, but I’m saying at this point, we need to do what we can to secure dollars for this city."

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