Here’s What’s Wrong With NJEA’s Strategy To Unseat Senate President Steve Sweeney

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this week that the New Jersey Education Association just launched a full-scale attack against long-time Democratic leader and Senate President Steve Sweeney. The union’s new web page lists a variety of betrayals that include “he cut our take home pay,” “he failed to secure our pensions,” “he took away bargaining rights,” and “he refuses to enforce the School Funding Reform Act.”

In what the Inquirer calls “a risky move,” NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said the union’s endgame was “backing a primary challenger or a Republican in a general election, or supporting a challenger in a Senate leadership fight.”

Fair enough, although the last time NJEA tried to do the same thing in 1991 it failed. What are the odds of it working this time? Politics and truth are rarely close companions so let’s look at NJEA’s platform for removing Sweeney from office or, their second choice, deposing him from his post as leader of the State Senate.

We’ll start with this: Every single item listed in the list of “broken promises” is blatantly false or mathematically impossible. Let’s review.

Is Sweeney personally responsible for cutting teachers’ take home pay? 

In 2011 a bipartisan bill (also known as Chapter 78), sponsored by five senators including Sweeney, ushered in a reform of public workers’ contributions to benefits premiums for pensions and healthcare. Previously teachers had paid 1.5% of their salaries — a mere pittance — for platinum healthcare coverage. The reform bill required a tiered system of increased contributions based on salaries — the higher your salary, the higher your contributions — which, in this era of 2% caps on school district budget increases, saved districts’ buttocks. Technically Chapter 78 expired last summer but there’s no going back to 1.5% without massive teacher lay-offs because higher contributions are baked into district budgets.

Did Sweeney fail to secure pensions?

Actually pensions are insecure (a more accurate word is unsalvageable) because for the last twenty-five years or so, well before Sweeney’s tenure as Senate President,  governors have used accounting tricks to create the pretense of fully funding pensions. This week Moody’s downgraded N.J.’s rating again because our pension liability is $50 billion. For context, the entire state budget is $35 billion. According to whom you ask, the system will go broke in 8-12 years. No matter how you finagle the numbers, there is simply no scenario in which the state ponies up enough money to salvage future teachers’ pensions without additional reform and sacrifices.

Did Sweeney take away bargaining rights? 

No, Chapter 78 took healthcare premium contributions negotiations away from districts and created a statewide system. However, the bill has expired and local bargaining units are free to negotiate with local school boards for this item. If a local unit prevailed, the only way a board could accommodate this giveback would be laying off teachers, raising class sizes, cutting programs, and hurting kids. That scenario may work for NJEA central office staffers. It wouldn’t work for the teachers I know.

Does Sweeney personally refuse to fully fund the school aid formula?

No, reality refuses to fully fund the school aid formula, also known as School Funding Reform Act. (SFRA). No matter what an aspiring gubernatorial candidate tells you — including NJEA’s favored son Phil Murphy — full funding is mathematically impossible. SFRA is dead. It’s Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue, not pining for the Fjords but passed on, no more, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet his maker, stiff, bereft of life, resting in peace, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisibile. If NJEA hadn’t nailed it to its perch it would be pushing up daisies.

SFRA is an ex-school funding formula. Here’s why. Remember that the entire state budget is $35 million. School aid comprises $13.3 million. Phil Murphy is promising NJEA members that he will find an extra $5.6 billion a year, effectively increasing the state’s contribution to districts by almost 40%. And that’s not including the hypothetical reversal of Chapter 78. And fully funding pensions. Where is that money coming from? He doesn’t say because it doesn’t exist.

Now, in all fairness, NJEA has lots of money to undermine Sweeney. But do leaders really think that their members will be well-served by severing any amity between themselves and the Senator, himself a member of the iron workers’ union,  based on a strategy of falsehoods? After all, Sweeney is highly-regarded throughout the state. He’s never lost an election. He  has plenty of campaign contributions,  Heck, he’s even been endorsed by Phil Murphy, not to mention U.S. Senator Cory Booker.

Here’s Carl Golden, courtesy of the Inquirer:

“If there’s one vote that incumbent legislators make that’s more jealously guarded than anything else, it’s the ability to pick their own leaders,” said Carl Golden, who was press secretary for two Republican governors. “That’s been proven time after time after time.” 

“Are the Democrats going to say, ‘Well, we don’t pick our leaders, the NJEA does?’ 

“The optics of that are not particularly complimentary.”

What do you think?


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