NEWARK, NJ — An onslaught of open vacancies at multiple levels throughout Newark Public Schools was the topic of heated public testimony at Tuesday evening’s Board of Education meeting, where community members and educators stressed the urgency of understaffing and teacher retention in the district. 

Nearly three months into the school year, positions ranging from department directors to general and special education teachers remain unfilled, inflating class sizes and spreading existing teachers too thin, according to Central High School teacher Christopher Canik. 

“The workload is unimaginable this year. Teachers now have so much work that we cannot get to the work that really matters to the students,” Canik said. He added that the district continues to fall short of its legal duty to have special-education certified teachers in classrooms where there are students with accommodations.

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As the district prepares to roll out an ambitious 10-year strategic plan in 2020, Superintendent Roger Leon said he is committed to recruiting quality teachers with staying power. Plagued by a scourge of graduates of programs like Teach for America, the district has struggled to secure tenured educators looking to teach in Newark for the long-term. 

Leon reassured the public that the days of ephemeral teachers using Newark Public School as a stepping stone for better opportunities will not continue under his leadership. 

But for the present, the aftermath of such high turnover and subsequent lack of suitable applicants has come to a head, disrupting student learning and creating frustrations for families and educators alike. Little was presented by Leon or the board in the way of stopgap measures for the crisis on Tuesday. 

“I want to know why it’s the end of October and my school still does not have one Algebra II teacher,” West Side High School student Karen Guam pressed in front of the board. 

The gaps in staffing are some of the most pervasive Wilhelmina Holder, president of the Secondary Parents Council and a former Essex County Parent-Teacher Association president, has seen in her time as an advocate for Newark Schools. She said the district currently has 105 total vacancies, 73 of which are in the high schools. 

Holder said the SPC hopes to hold a hearing before the Joint Education Committee in the spring to field testimony on a proposal for a loan forgiveness incentive for teachers who make at least a five-year commitment. 

“I think [the district] is doing the best they can, but it’s a horrible situation,” Holder said. “What can we do at this point? It’s November already.”