Newark Teachers Union coming under increasing scruitiny

Yesterday’s New York Times has an op-ed which asks the question: is the Newark Teachers Union spending its resources to wage political warfare, or educate our kids? Blackboards Not Billboards. You might recall that the NTU posted billboards asking for “Help Wanted” to stop the killings in Newark, which kicked up quite a controversy. From the Times:

Why the fight? Because the mayor supports school vouchers. He believes that vouchers would allow students who are trapped in underperforming schools to transfer somewhere better. The union has stood against school vouchers from the very beginning.

In the interest of scaring voters, for example, the union’s parent organization has claimed that there is no evidence that vouchers will improve achievement. But this is false. Study after study has demonstrated that voucher systems improve student achievement, regardless of socioeconomic background. Indeed, the National Research Council issued a report during the Clinton administration recommending that the government finance a large-scale school choice experiment.

Quite simply, union leaders are against vouchers because they fear such efforts will divert money into less unionized, or non-union, schools.

The union claims to have Newark’s best interests at heart. But instead, it has chosen to aggressively oppose the measure most likely to improve Newark’s schools while wasting its resources on billboards that will do little but drive business out of the city.

David White, the author, makes a solid point about the entrenchment of what is essentially a political action committee paid for by mandatory union dues and state funding. This entry at the Whitney Tilson School Reform Blog hammers the point home, citing bleak statistics about the Newark public school system, Horrifying statistics for Newark’s high schools:

There are 42,000 children in Newark’s public schools. There are 15 elementary schools, of which 11 are failing — defined as 80% or more of the children at least one year below grade level. There are 13 high schools in Newark: four magnet schools and nine “comprehensive” schools (read: dumping grounds). Here are the statistics for the typical comprehensive high school (these statistics are not for the worst school):

  • 500 students enter 9th grade, of which 350 of them are testing below the 6th grade level — on average, at the 4th-5th grade level.
  • Only half of these students make it to 10th grade — a 50% dropout rate in one year!
  • By the time senior year starts, the class is down to only 150 students.
  • Of these students, 75% make it to the end of the year, but only 27 (18% of those who begin the year and 5.4% of those who started 9th grade) pass the High School Proficiency Assessment, an 8th-grade-level test.
  • Of these 27 students (85% of whom are female, by the way), most go to two-year community colleges, where 90% of them require an average of two years of remedial work (essentially repeating 11th and 12th grade), so that it takes the few who graduate about four years to receive a two-year degree.

So what do you think the bureaucracy claims is the graduation rate? 75%. I am not making this up!

I suspect most people would assume that Newark’s schools are underfunded, thanks to heartless, uncaring, wealthy white voters and politicians. Nothing could be further from the truth. Newark spends $1 billion annually on its schools, more than $20,000 per student per year, the highest of any school district in the nation! (Average K-12 public school spending nationwide is about $9,000 annually per pupil.)

The average teacher salary in Newark is $77,000, among the highest in the nation (plus no doubt platinum benefits and, of course, iron-clad job security). Yet teacher quality is dismal and the union contract excuses teachers from any lunch room or hall duty or any obligation to communicate with parents – in short, anything that would involve contact with the very people they’re supposed to be serving: the students and their parents.

Recognizing that Newark teachers have one of the most difficult jobs in America, one would hope that the Teachers Union would act as an agent of change to redeem our schools and provide hope for our kids. The political stunts and distraction from our children’s welfare, however, have only reinforced the status quo of mismanagement of public funds and poor education for these kids. All this to say that if the NTU isn’t part of the solution, it’s obviously a part of the problem.

Overhaul of Broad Street to begin May 7

Broad Street Overhaul

Star Ledger: City’s epicenter getting a $20M broad stroke

Broad Street in Newark will be getting a dramatic makeover that will transform the city’s hardworking main drag into a more pedestrian-friendly and aesthetically pleasing gateway to rival those in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City.

Plans call for plant-filled center medians, bump-outs at intersections, and tree-lined curbs. Construction on the $20 million project is expected to begin on May 7.

When the work is completed, planners hope Broad Street will resemble North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Broad Street in Philadelphia and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan — all streets that Newark studied when designing the Broad Street project.

With the October opening of the Prudential Arena, which will be on Broad Street, city officials said it is the right time to get the project moving.

After a little Googing, I found the architecture firm responsible for the work (the image above is theirs). They’ve got a one-page PDF describing the project:

The goals of this multi-phased capital improvement program are to: improve pedestrian safety along the Broad Street corridor; develop a comprehensive, distinctly Newark design treatment for the length of Broad Street; and prepare contract documents for phased implementation. The streetscape enhancements include new granite curbing, decorative sidewalk and roadway paving, distinctive street and pedestrian lighting systems and other sidewalk amenities. The project’s signature element will be a raised median with large planters and street lighting providing distinct character and increasing pedestrian safety. Other safety improvements include updated traffic signal equipment and improved traffic signal timing.

Here’s a map of the area planned for improvement.

Cory Booker, Power Broker II?

Star Ledger: City workers feel pushed to aid Booker.

With a fundraiser celebrating the first anniversary of his victory at the polls coming up next month, Newark Mayor Cory Booker has a message for city employees thinking about buying tickets to the event: Don’t bother.

Booker, who was elected on a platform of reforming city government, said he plans to return any political contributions from city employees that find their way into his campaign coffers.

The mayor said he’s trying to change an old, poisonous tradition in city government where employees felt as if their jobs depended on stuffing their boss’s campaign treasury.

But some city employees say they are still feeling the pressure to raise money for the mayor’s campaign.

Reporters Mays and Schuppe go on to describe how some city workers are compelled to sell tickets to the aforementioned fundraiser. Still, as the article progresses, it seems that either some folks didn’t get the message that this kind of coercion is illegal:

McCarthy said he has spread the word through his top brass that an officer can only sell a ticket if he or she is off-duty, participating voluntarily and is not conducting business on city property. Anyone caught breaking those rules will be disciplined, he said.

“We’re not going to shove tickets down people’s throats,” he said. “Your advancement or lack thereof in our agency will not be based on political contributions or selling of tickets.”

When he signed an executive order establishing the ban, Booker touted it as a bold step toward reforming city government.

Campaign records show Booker received $226,856 in contributions from 245 employees during the 2006 election cycle — just a portion of the record-smashing $7 million total he raised.

Booker said the new complaints show that workers still think there is pressure, even when there isn’t.

“We are trying to change a culture where tickets were stapled to paychecks. This culture will not change on a dime,” Booker said.

Is it Booker’s motivation to have city employees subtly encouraged to raise funds for him? I highly doubt it: this is the same mayor who was criticized for bringing in massive amounts of funding from outside the city to crush his opponent — why would he put the pressure on city workers to raise cash now?

This does look like some post-traumatic stress on the part of city workers from city workers, and just points to the long road ahead for this administration to get everyone on the same page.

Moody’s still considers Newark a safe investment

Jeffrey Mays of the Star Ledger reports that Moody’s Investor Service has maintained its bond rating on the city of Newark despite the budget drama: Newark retains its bond rating.

Newark’s bond rating was left unchanged by Moody’s Investors Service despite a looming budget deficit of up to $170 million and its continued reliance on one-time cash infusions to balance the budget.

But unless Newark can repair its massive structural budget deficit, that may change.

With $277 million in outstanding debt, Newark’s bond rating will remain at Baa2 with a stable outlook, the same level it was downgraded to in January 2005. The ranking puts Newark at an average level of credit worthiness compared with other municipalities.

The rating is used to determine the likelihood that a bond issuer will default. The higher the rating, the better the interest rate. Newark’s debt is secured by the city’s ability to raise taxes.

City officials used $115 million in the 2007 budget from the settlement of a lawsuit with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey over airport and seaport lease payments. That is almost equal to the $116 million the city expects to raise in property taxes this year, and is the biggest cause for concern, said Edith Behr, vice president and senior analyst of public finance for Moody’s Investors Service.

“The reliance on one-time nonreoccurring revenues from the Port Authority settlement allows them to support operation in the midterm, but when those revenues decrease and expire, the city will have to identify alternative revenues or create efficiencies to maintain stable operations,” Behr said. “Our rating reflects the efforts in place by the new administration to increase revenue and reduce expenditures. As time goes forward — not too much time — we will be able to assess how well those plans are being played out.”

Business Administrator Bo Kemp said the city is looking at several ways to save money and to increase revenues. Mayor Cory Booker has said that everything, including layoffs, is on the table except cuts to police and fire service.

This is good news for the city inasmuch as the city government can still borrow cash to fund large initiatives, as it did by raising $220 million to fund the Devils Arena. Still, the implication that, if the city government can’t work out its books by this time next year, our credit rating — and our ability to bring businesses into the city — takes a beating.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Booker’s going on record here that we won’t see decreased fire and police service if push comes to shove. That should come as a relief to many of us as the city continues to battle drugs and violent crime.

So, if Booker won’t cut police and fire to solve the $70-million-or-so budget gap next year, where do you think it will come from?

City Hall quiet about the NTU billboards lately

City Hall has been pretty quiet since the hoopla last month over the Newark Teachers Union billboards, and one wonders if it’s because of articles like this brilliant piece from Joan Whitlow at the Star Ledger: Newark ought to fight crime, not battle over signs

In the meantime, Arthur Stern, a developer, said tenants in his newly renovated 1180 Raymond Boulevard apartments — great-looking apartments that offer a workout gym, valet parking, a partial basketball court and bowling alley — were annoyed by the NTU sign nearby at Broad and West Park. He said he will buy the space and cover up the “godawful” thing.

How many times did I pass that billboard without noticing it? But once you see it, you cannot help but notice the old, abandoned office building next to it — which is owned by the city. Not far away are two other old, empty buildings owned by Stern’s realty company. One of Stern’s buildings has fairly new windows, and both are slated for redevelopment — they have been for years. For now, they are just two more “godawful” empty downtown derelicts that don’t do much more for the landscape, or Newark’s image, than the NTU’s billboard.

I drove along Route 1 looking for the NTU billboards that were supposed to be on the highway. Maybe I was paying too much attention to the trucks and cars, but I never saw the NTU signs. I did see a “Crimestoppers” billboard put up by the city: Give Newark police an anonymous tip about crime, and they will give you a re ward. Yet another Newark billboard offered to buy back guns, to help stop the shootings and crime the mayor doesn’t want other people to allude to on their billboards. I wonder if the city’s billboards made the runaway bride-to-be feel secure?

Stop the Killings

I recently found a Flickr photo set entitled Stop the Killings which paints a picture of how city some residents are responding to the violence through protests.

I know I had previously taken issue with the NTU over the signs, and I stand behind that position — the signs are unproductive and unhelpful. If, as Del Grasso asserts in is conversation with Joan, these signs are part of a larger anti-violence campaign that includes conducting community forums, then it’s a botched marketing message. If they made this clearer from the start, the NTU probably would have received less criticism.

But City Hall’s noise does seem unfortunate given the larger struggle those signs represent. The city still has a long way to go to become the safe, cosmopolitan and family-friendly city that Mayor Booker envisions. Even if the billboards are dreadfully unhelpful, fighting them is an exercise in futility which just wastes time and attention.

Joan’s closing words put this issue into perspective.

Let me tell you about the signs I don’t want to see anymore. They are made of T-shirts or a piece of cardboard. They go up on fences and walls to mark the spot were someone was killed in Newark. People leave candles and write: “The good die young” or “We’ll miss you,” followed by some childhood nickname. I hate those signs.

Stop the killings.

Two (more) men shot in the South Ward

Ledger Updates blog: 2 men shot outside Newark bar; 4th day of violence.

In last night’s shooting, two men were wounded about 10:30 p.m. outside the Oasis bar, Lyons Avenue and Aldine Street, Detective Todd McClendon said.

The detective did not immediately identify the victims, but he said one was shot in the hip and the other in the leg.

The men ran to another address on Lyons Avenue, and they were then transported to University Hospital, the detective added.

A possible motive for the shooting remained under investigation, and police did not announce the arrest of any suspects.

(Hat tip: John James)

Police get leads on Schley St shootings

The Ledger reports that police are making progress on solving the Schley St shootings from earlier in the week: Cops link two fatal shootings in Newark.

So far, police have one alleged killer in custody: a 16-year-old boy who turned himself in to homicide detectives yesterday. He was charged with shooting a man twice his age after the Monday brawl grew into a melee involving several men.

The boy, whose name was provided by police but is being withheld by the Star-Ledger, was brutally beaten in the fight. Police are investigating whether he was pum meled by the man who he is accused of fatally shooting, a 32-year-old ex-con named Jimmie Mitchell who hung out in the neighborhood.

Here are the two incidents:

Third Murder in Three Days

This is a discouraging trend, and doesn’t bode well for the summer, where warmer weather encourages reckless behavior. Star Ledger: Teen shot dead in Newark; 3rd murder in 3 days.

A teenage boy was shot dead in Newark tonight, the third homicide in as many days, authorities said.

A male was fatally wounded shortly after 9 p.m. in Mildred Helms Park, Detective Todd McClendon said.

The shooting death was Newark’s 29th homicide of the year, the detective said.

The victim appeared to be between 15 and 18, added a police source with knowledge of the shooting.

The source said the boy walked into the park, located near the Clinton Avenue School north of Route 78 in the city’s South Ward, with a group of friends.

The fatal shooting followed back-to-back shootings on Monday and Tuesday, both of which took place on Schley Street, less than a block apart.

In Tuesday’s shooting, a man’s body was dumped from a vehicle. That man, who has not yet been identified, was shot in the face.

A day earlier, Jimmie Mitchell, a 32-year-old Irvington man, was shot to death, also on Schley Street.

Mitchell was killed when a brawl erupted, and the victim returned to the scene after briefly stepping away from the conflict, authorities said.

Robbery Attempt in Newark

The Star Ledger reports: Robbery attempt ends in shootout in Newark.

A would-be robbery in Newark tonight ended in an exchange of gunfire between armed robbers and two off-duty corrections officers, police said.

Neither the officers nor two other robbery victims were struck during the shootout, and investigators are unsure if any of the four robbers was wounded, Detective Todd McClendon said.

The incident began shortly before 8:30 p.m. when four robbers got out of two vehicles and confronted their would-be targets — one of the corrections officers and two others — on Mulberry Street, McClendon said.

After one of the robbers shot at one of his victims, a nearby corrections officer who witnessed the shooting fired at the would-be robbers, the detective said.

Meanwhile, the corrections officer who was among the intended targets of the robbery also opened fire.

The suspects fled, and remained at large tonight, authorities said.

Hat tip: Miss Tam-Tam on NewarkSpeaks

Culture of Corruption Runs Deep

The City Journal has a piece giving an overview of Newark’s history of corruption and Mayor Booker’s current challenges with the city: Cory Booker’s Battle for Newark.

But within Newark’s success lay the seeds of its downfall. As it became America’s most heavily industrialized city, Newark attracted the attention of powerful organized-crime families from New York. Their corrupting influence in the early part of the twentieth century spread from gambling and bootlegging into Newark’s unions and manufacturing industries, and eventually into the city’s politics. Abner “Longy” Zwillman, a bootlegger who smuggled through Newark nearly 40 percent of all liquor peddled on the East Coast during Prohibition, bought off enough local officials to take control of the city’s politics from the late 1920s until his death in 1959. Mob influence then passed to Ruggiero “Richie the Boot” Boiardo, a capo in New York’s Genovese crime family, and Angelo “Ray” DeCarlo, who famously helped to fix the 1962 Newark mayoral election for Democratic congressman Hugh Addonizio.

Federal investigations into Addonizio’s sleazy administration later revealed that almost every aspect of Newark’s government operated like a racket. Officials fattened the cost of contracts by 10 percent for kickbacks, and city government even used the same bought-and-paid-for auditors as the mob did. Every Newark citizen and firm paid a corruption tax. One 1950s study found that Newark, with some 460,000 residents, had the most expensive government of any midsize American city, spending nearly twice as much per citizen as the average.

By the 1960s, manufacturers had begun leaving for cheaper regions, just as Newark was absorbing waves of unskilled blacks from the rural South, creating a toxic mix of urban decline that exploded in the 1967 race riots. Fearful and without faith in Newark’s blatantly crooked government, the middle class fled. The city’s population shrank to just 270,000 mostly low-income residents—a 40 percent decline.

Things didn’t get much better under “reform” mayors Gibson and James, and the author notes that it’s this entrenchment that Booker has found himself fighting. The analysis by Make Newark Clean at NewarkSpeaks is particularly insightful:

An interesting read, especially the history of corruption in this city. Newark’s government has pitched from being barely legally run, to outright indictable-level crookedness for generations! Although this essay is clearly biased, it has reawakened my appreciation of our mayor’s tightrope walk. On the one hand, he has to pledge fealty to a Democratic party structure for which has been ethically challenged for years, while, on the other hand, he has to cannily pick and choose his battles against such long-term entrenchment. Our mayor also seeks to take on more responsibility — seeking to recover the state-seized Newark school system. Good for him. I particularly like his idea of seeking private money to pay for placing Newark’s schoolchildren out of district. It’s a shame that it’s so bad that it’s come to that. But it does seem to indicate that Cory really does care and hasn’t lost his activist bent.