By Samantha Henry
NEWARK, N.J.: More than three years after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg committed $100 million toward remaking Newark’s struggling schools, the district is engulfed in a dispute over proposed large-scale teacher layoffs that’s threatening to derail wider reform efforts.
Nearly half the money has been invested in a 2012 teacher contract that was hailed by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the nation’s top teacher’s union official as an example of adversaries joining forces to rebuild a struggling urban school district. The contract, partially funded by the Facebook money, made Newark the state’s first district to allow for teacher merit pay and peer reviews.
But implementation of the contract, including a dispute over emphasizing teacher performance in determining layoffs, has devolved into a bitter fight between Superintendent Cami Anderson and teachers unions over the future of New Jersey’s largest school district.
Newark’s schools were brought under state control in 1995 following years of mismanagement, chronically low test scores and crumbling infrastructure in the city of 280,000, where the median household income is less than half the state’s average. Zuckerberg was persuaded by then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker to invest in remaking the district, a donation announced in 2010 on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Since then, the contract’s implementation has stalled, with both sides blaming the other for acting in bad faith. A recent request by Anderson for a waiver that would allow her to circumvent state tenure rules and base layoffs on a teacher’s effectiveness rating along with years of service has provoked the ire of local teachers unions and American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten.
According to the district’s projections, about 30 percent of Newark’s 3,200 teachers need to be laid off over the next three years to close a projected $100 million budget gap.