NJEA teachers union blasted by lawmakers over controversial videos

June 1, 2018

State lawmakers grilled leaders of New Jersey's largest teachers union Thursday over hidden-camera videos appearing to show local union officials discussing protecting teachers accused of abusing students.

They also implored state education officials to make it clear the state has zero tolerance for covering up accusations of abuse. 

"If you have a person who is blocking information, it will never get out of the room and that child's life will always be endangered," state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said during the joint hearing of the Senate education and labor committees at the Statehouse in Trenton.

"We have to change the culture of individuals who think their main priority is to protect the worst," Ruiz added.

Phil Murphy supports hearings on 'unacceptable' NJEA videos

The hearing was called in response to videos posted by Project Veritas, a controversial conservative nonprofit run by New Jersey native and Rutgers University graduate James O'Keefe. The group often goes undercover to expose liberal groups -- and has been criticized for selectively editing their videos.

These clips show local union presidents in Hamilton (Mercer County) and Union City -- which are branches of the New Jersey Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state.

Hamilton union president David Perry and Union City president Kathleen Valencia are shown discussing how their unions hypothetically would help teachers who physically abused or threatened students. 

Valencia mentions how a teacher who had sex with a teenage girl will not be fired because no charges were filed.

Both presidents resigned and were suspended without pay from their districts, NJEA executive director Ed Richardson said Thursday.

The union also said it will conduct a review of how local officials handle suspected abuse of children.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester -- who has often feuded with the NJEA -- called for Thursday's hearing, saying what was said in the videos is "offensive."

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who was endorsed by the NJEA, supported the hearings, saying "if it's true, it's completely unforgivable and unacceptable, what was said."

Richardson said Thursday there's "no place" for abusing students and covering it up. 

"Our members have a moral obligation to protect students," Richardson told lawmakers. 

He stressed the union wants to "make sure every staff member knows how to report abuse" and said the union will conduct training as needed.

"We must ensure we are meeting our due legal responsibility to protect children," Richardson added.

But Ruiz said she was bothered by how Richardson said the local officials were "set up" by Project Veritas. 

"I cannot accept that," said Ruiz, chairwoman of the Senate education committee, adding that "no one can set you up" to say the kind of things these officials said on camera.

She said she's not defending Project Veritas. 

"But you cannot be set up to have this kind of mentality," Ruiz said.

Richardson pointed out that the union had the videos "professionally analyzed" and that there were 26 edits in the video.

Meanwhile, Lamont Repollet, the acting state education commissioner under Gov. Phil Murphy, said his department takes the safety of students seriously.

He said the department working on new forms districts must use when background-checking teachers -- part of the requirements of the "passing the trash" law that Murphy recently signed.

Repollet said the state Board of Examiners receives complaints about teachers and can revoke and suspend licenses. 

"It is heart-wrenching to know there are individuals out there who may hurt a child," he added.

State Sen. Fred Madden, D-Gloucester, told Repollet the state has "all the safeguards in the place" but "the problem is there is a big hole in it."

"The hole is if it's not reported to you or the Board of Examiners, nothing is done," said Madden, chairman of the Senate labor committee. "Something needs to be clamped down on, even the person who is not reporting it, hiding the facts. I think they are just as guilty as the person who is abusing the child."

"I think there is a lot that needs to be done to tighten up on all of this," he added.

Gov tenure comments draw ire from NJEA

April 8, 2011

NEW YORK — Gov. Chris Christie Thursday continued to push his tenure-reform proposals, saying even teachers know the system needs to change — a comment that drew ire from the state’s largest teachers union.

Speaking at an event sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank, Christie reiterated the need to base qualifications for teacher tenure on high student achievement and excellent teaching.

“I don’t want to end tenure,” the governor said to a small audience of about 30 people. “I want tenure to be based on merit.”

Over the past few months, Christie said he and acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf have visited districts and spoken directly with teachers, “no union reps, no administrators in the room, and no press either.”

“What I found was not one teacher who doesn’t understand that we need to reform the system,” Christie said. “They all know it.”

While saying his education reforms are not an assault on teachers, the governor did again criticize their union, the New Jersey Education Association. He called union leaders “thugs” and “bullies” who oppose real reform.

“This is not an issue of attacking teachers. This is not about saying teachers are bad and should be thrown out of schools,” Christie said. “This is first and foremost about our children and those teachers who are really good and care about our children and how they can be empowered to prepare those children for higher education or a career.”

The NJEA didn’t buy it.

Reached after Christie’s speech, union spokesman Bruce Baker said the governor spends so much time name-calling because he wants to divert attention from the substance of his plan. He accused Christie of having a “political vendetta” against the union.

“What the governor’s policies actually mean is a massive expansion of testing,” Baker said. “This is the exact thing that has frustrated parents with the federal No Child Left Behind law, and under Christie, it will be made much worse.”

The governor’s plan calls for evaluating teachers annually and giving equal weight to student achievement and classroom observations. Only teachers with three consecutive years of high ratings would receive tenure. Those teachers would also qualify for pay raises.

Cerf first unveiled details of the plan in a recent address at Princeton University. Specifics about teacher evaluations were announced last month by North Brunswick Superintendent Brian Zychowski, who chaired the governor’s evaluations task force.

Using test scores to evaluate teachers will require the state to create exams for subjects and grades that now are untested. Currently, 4th-, 8th- and 11th-grade students are tested in math and language arts.

The New Jersey School Boards Association praised Christie’s calls to replace lifetime tenure with an evaluation system linked to job performance, a change the association has sought for 30 years, executive director Marie Bilik said.

“Teachers should not fear tenure reform,” Bilik said. “The majority of our teachers are dedicated professionals, and state-to-state comparisons of overall student performance illustrate the high level of achievement in New Jersey.”