The Trouble with Seniority

There’s not many opportunities to use Trenton Public Schools as an exemplar, but the School Board and community wrangling over the fate of a popular basketball coach points to the constraints of privileging seniority over effectiveness. The district had the chance to bring in Greg Grant, ex-NBA-er and assistant coach of The College of New Jersey men's basketball team, and he actually held two practices to great acclaim. Then the Trenton Education Association stepped in and argued – correctly – that the job legally goes to Charles Jackson, the junior varsity coach who has been in the district ten years with proper certification.

The Board tried to side with public sentiment and dimwittedly reinstated Grant, but State Fiscal Monitor Mark Cowell, according to the Trenton Times, said the board violated tenure laws. "Even though Mr. Grant may be the most qualified coach, Mr. Jackson also has coaching experience," Cowell told the board. "But the fact that Mr. Jackson is a certificated teacher working in the district -- he gets preference."

Sure, it’s a basketball coach, not a language arts or math teacher. And the Board really should know better. And the union official was correct to tell the Board that "You have chosen to break the law, and have the taxpayers incur litigation expenses which the district cannot afford, all due to being star-struck.”

But it’s simple, right? There was a better candidate (at least according to families and students, board members and State Fiscal Monitor) who won’t be coaching basketball because promotions/perks/extra-duty positions are awarded on the basis of longevity, not skill. The more qualified man, the one who told the Trentonian, “The reason I’m here is I hate to see Trenton High kids not go off to college. Maybe I can give them incentive to make something of themselves,” has been "told to stay away" from all varsity basketball games.

Update: The Trenton Times reports today that Charles Jackson, the teacher in line to coach boys' basketball in Trenton, submitted a letter withdrawing his intention to serve. Therefore, the Trenton School Board reappointed Greg Grant. But stay tuned: "That interpretation is being challenged by the teachers union, however. Union officials argue that [Fiscal Monitor] Cowell manipulated Jackson to withdraw his application, and they say Jackson has since sent the monitor another document that reverses his withdrawal."