Education

Newark superintendent calls out teachers' union boss over contract stalemate

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Newark Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf. Credits: TAPintoNewark file photo
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Newark Public Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf called out Newark Teachers Union boss John Abeigon, criticizing him for consistently lying, viciously attacking people with slanderous claims and refusing to negotiate a contract for his members.

In an October 6 letter obtained by NewarkInc.com, Cerf said he would respond to "each and every misrepresentation."

"I believe that your members, as well as the community, are entitled to the truth - an opinion you clearly do not share," Cerf wrote in the letter, which has been circulating on social media.

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The discord between the two stems from a stalemate over a new contract for Newark's teachers. The previous agreement, negotiated by Cerf's predecessor, Cami Anderson, and hailed as a groundbreaking contract because it paid $48 million in merit bonuses made possible by a $100 million grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, expired in 2015.

Cerf accused Abeigon of posturing on contract negotiations as a tactic to help him win votes when he runs for reelection as president of the Newark Teachers Union in April.

"For all of your puffing in meetings and in the press, I am also aware that you received only 452 votes out of a total eligible membership of almost 4,000 -- less than the combined vote totals of the two runners up," Cerf wrote. "So I do understand that your public position reflects your own political calculation about how to improve your standing in the next election. In my judgment, however, that is not an excuse for lying or taking positions that are contrary to the interests of the students of Newark or your members."

Cerf, a former state Education Commissioner under Gov. Christie who became superintendent in July 2015 following the tumultuous tenure of Anderson, has had a contentious relationship with Abeigon.

In March 2016, Abeigon called for Cerf's resignation after lead contamination was found in the drinking water of numerous Newark schools and he has been a constant critic during meetings of the school advisory board.

Cerf's letter provides previously unreported insight about the negotiations between the district and the union.

In the letter, Cerf said the district was willing to offer $22 million in total compensation increases over the four-year life of the contract and would "entertain any reasonable proposal from the NTU about how to divide that up."

However, the offer was unacceptable to the union, which was seeking well over $50 million in raises over a three-year period, according to the letter.

"A demand for well over $50 million in raises a three-year -- not a four-year -- contract is not a serious response, but rather a declaration of complete lack of seriousness about reaching an agreement," Cerf wrote. "You have preferred drama and rhetoric to good faith negotiation, seemingly for your own personal political purposes."

An email to Abeigon Wednesday evening was not immediately returned. On its web site, the union has launched a campaign to lobby lawmakers about the stalemate with Cerf.

"Please ask your elected representatives and legislative leadership to direct Chris Cerf to focus on what is important for Newark’s students and families. He should focus on supporting community public schools and treating workers fairly, bargaining fair contracts and respecting due process policies for education workers."

In the letter, Cerf said Abeigon violated an agreement to keep negotiations behind closed doors.

"It is ironic that you would then stand up at a public board meeting and say that NPS was responsible for not giving your members a raise for last year when it is you, the NTU President, who is personally accountable for that unfortunate reality," Cerf wrote.

Cerf also criticized Abeigon for maligning security staff after a shooting incident by saying that our schools are manned with "untrained per diem security guards."

"All of our superb security personnel, full time and per diem, receive extensive training. That training was in evidence that very day when they professionally and safely handled the incident in question," Cerf wrote. "Instead of looking to support our schools in the midst of disheartening violence, you turned to blame and fear.

Cerf also took Abeigon to task for claiming to have a "stellar track record" defending tenure actions against teachers.

"Among your 'wins' was the case of a teacher whom your lawyers defended who was found to have called students 'monkeys' and 'stupid'," Cerf wrote. "You recently defended and lost a case against another teacher who was verbally and physically abusive to students and who as a means of punishment did not allow them to go to the bathroom."

Cerf said despite Abeigon's claims of success, more than three quarters of the teachers who were the subject of a tenure case are no longer with the district.

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