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Monday, August 29, 2016

(BOE) Plainfield teachers union questions propriety of having charter advocate as Convocation speaker

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, shown here with Gov. Chris Christie,
has been scheduled to keynote this year's Convocation.

In an email to Plainfield Board of Education members and other school officials sent Saturday evening, Plainfield Education Association president Eric Jones registered the union's concerns with Superintendent Anna Belin Pyles' plan to have State Sen. Theresa Ruiz as the keynote speaker for the District's Convocation, scheduled for this Thursday, September 1. (Opening day for classes for the fall term is Tuesday, September 6.)

Ruiz, a state senator whose district includes parts of Newark, Essex and Union Counties (but not Plainfield), chairs the Senate's Education Committee.

She is a longtime advocate for charter schools, has previously served as board member of a charter school, and in 2013 was the keynote speaker at the NJ Charter School Association's annual convention (see video here).

Sen. Ruiz (center) and Senate President Steve Sweeney
(gesturing) at conference on school funding.

More recently, she has been active in crafting an alternative to Gov. Christie's plan to gut funding for urban school districts statewide. Along with Senate President Steve Sweeney and other elected officials, she is "hitting the road" (as the Ledger puts it) to tout that plan (see Ledger story here). Ruiz and Sweeney penned a recent OpEd in the Ledger arguing for their proposal (see here).

A Convocation at the opening o the school year has been a feature in the Plainfield school district since at least the tenure of Dr. Larry Leverett, and has always been used by the Superintendent as a sort of pep rally to present the leadership's vision for the district ACADEMICALLY for the coming school year. The purpose has been to inform and enthuse the staff -- teachers, support staff and all employees of the district -- to get on board with the vision and see each one's part in achieving it.

Given her background and interests, Ruiz is not likely to use her opportunity for that purpose -- and, in any event, she would be ignorant of the situation on the ground in Plainfield and what needs to be done.

Here is the text of President Jones' email to the BOE members --
Dear Board of Education:

It is disappointing that the Superintendent of Schools continues to ignore the concerns of her employees and has chosen to proceed with a convocation on Thursday, September 1, 2016.

It is even more disappointing that she has chosen a keynote speaker who is a huge supporter of charter schools.

Charter Schools have drained our district of nearly $20 Million Dollars for his upcoming school year, and there is no response from our district's leadership to address this.

Moreover, since June 2016, 163 students have exited our district's schools - more than half of the population of Cook Elementary.

When this should be a "state-of-emergency" and a "all-hands-on-deck" effort to market our schools to our students and families, our district's leadership has decided to invite a charter school champion to speak to our members.

Employees are furious at the invitation of Senator Ruiz to Plainfield.  She does not understand our challenges here in the Queen City and we feel this decision is politically inspired.

On behalf of the members of the Plainfield Education Association, I ask the Board of Education to reconsider the message you are sending your dedicated employees by subjecting them to hear from a charter school supporter as they face a declining budget and resources due to the influx of charters in our school community.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
Some suspect that the invitation to Ruiz is a sign of Assemblyman Jerry Green's moves to build support for the candidacy of Sen. Steve Sweeney in next year's governor's race.

Green engineered a secret "anyone but Fulop" get-together of Union, Essex and other Democratic officials recently as reported by PolitickerNJ (see here), in which Ruiz was a participant. The assumed purpose of that meeting was to solidify support for Sweeney, a politician in the thrall of South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, of whom Green has been a longtime vassal.

To add some further fizz to this potent drink, Ruiz is being promoted by Essex County Dems as Sweeney's successor as Senate President if he wins the governor's seat (see here).

The invitation to Ruiz appears to be an unwanted and unwarranted intrusion of politics into what should be the Superintendent's primary concern -- improving educational outcomes for the District's students and enlisting all District employees in that cause -- which is the best way of coping with the challenge of charter schools.

While the Plainfield Education Association email does not spell out any further action the union may take, it is clear that this is only the beginning of an important conversation among the union, the Board of Ed and the public about the direction and future of education in the Plainfield public schools.

Stay tuned.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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