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As Newark’s landmark teachers contract begins to be implemented, only about 20 percent of district teachers who can opt to earn bonuses for exemplary evaluations and service in hard-to-fill slots have actually decided to do so.

“Opt” is the key word here. New teachers and those with only bachelor’s degrees are automatically enrolled in the program — defined in a new salary guide — which pays up to $12,500 in yearly bonuses.

Under the groundbreaking Newark contract, however, teachers with advanced degrees — about half of the city’s teaching force — can choose to stay with the traditional salary guide, which rewards teachers according to experience and academic degree.

With the last of the selections completed at the start of the new year, district officials said this week that roughly 80 percent of those who could stayed with the traditional guide.

Superintendent Cami Anderson, who personally negotiated the contract with the Newark Teachers Union, said yesterday that the number of willing takers was encouraging and about what she expected.

The biggest raises for veteran teachers fall in the traditional guide, and she said it made economic sense for many of them. The fact that a fifth were willing to shoot for the bonuses was a positive, she added.

“We thought that was pretty exciting,” Anderson said in an interview. “We didn’t expect more than that. I think it is human nature to choose what you are accustomed to.”

Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the NTU, also said that many teachers were sticking with the familiar as the new contract was being put in place with a host of changes, including a new evaluation system that incorporates peer review.

“I think they felt more comfortable on the traditional guide, and in some cases the raises were better,” Del Grosso said in an interview yesterday. “They made individual decisions based on their own finances.”

“Peer review and the performance pay aspect will take a little while for people to acclimate to,” he continued. “I think a lot of people want to see just how it works, that it will be a fair and equitable evaluation process. Since it’s something new, I think a lot of members want to take their time.”

The choice of salary guides is just one of the steps being taken in New Jersey’s largest school district to put the sweeping contract in place, a process that both Anderson and Del Grosso said has so far gone relatively smoothly.

A big piece of the puzzle has been getting out retroactive checks to teachers and other NTU members to cover the past two years since the previous contract expired, payments totaling close to $31 million — a sum being largely paid for through the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Even that process involved a number of changes, DelGrosso said. The district and the union had to work out if recently retired teachers would be included, as well as how to get the checks issued before the end of the year and the advent of the new payroll taxes that were included in Congress’s “fiscal cliff” negotiations.

“Some follow up of that still needs to be made, but that has basically been done,” Del Grosso said of the retroactive checks.

“The transition process is always difficult,” he said in general, “but so far wherever we have found problems the district has corrected them.”

Among the next steps is putting in place the peer review process that for the first time will include teachers in the evaluations themselves and create teams of fellow educators to serve as “validators” in case evaluations are contested.

“We still need to decide what exact role they will play, whether it will be required that they observe or evaluate, and will they be those with credentials in administration and supervision,” Del Grosso said. “All of those things still need to be worked out.”

The district is also acting on provisions in the contract that will provide stipends for teachers working in nearly a dozen targeted low-performing schools who will be required to put in extra hours of training and instruction.

The contract would pay those teachers $3,000 for the additional time, including two weeks of additional professional development over the summer and an extra hour of school each day. But with the contract ratified midyear, the implementation has been modified depending on the school.

“Because we didn’t sign until midyear,” Anderson said, “while there was nothing to prevent us from implementing it, at the same time it would be a little like changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

So teachers in those schools were given a choice whether to sign on to the extra time, with no penalty if they didn’t, and schools could choose to phase in the additional hours.

“By doing that, what happened was a majority of our teachers did sign [the agreements],” Anderson said.

Overall, the superintendent said there remain many challenges ahead in making the contract work, but the progress and partnership with the union has been strong so far and helped smooth many of the rough spots.

“I’m very hopeful and also very pleased in the partnership with NTU,” Anderson said. “This contract is only as good as the implementation, and it will require intense collaboration. And we’re off to a good start .”

Del Grosso said much the same, crediting the district for addressing problems as they came along. He gave specific credit to Anderson: “She’s been pretty good, I have to say.”

This story comes to us courtesy the New Jersey Spotlight.

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