Note: Just as I was about to tweet this post, NJEA announced that is was cancelling next week's convention and exploring ways for members to assist in the clean-up. President Barbara Keshishian added that "the NJEA Convention would be back next year, bigger and
stronger than ever, and we look forward to a long and productive
relationship with the great people of Atlantic City.”
Good move, and a great idea to lend hands in devastated A.C.. But what about next year's convention? So here's the post anyway, which looks to reasons why NJEA and the State Legislature should revisit alternatives to meeting member needs without cancelling two days of instructional time.
Over here in central Jersey, most of my town is still without heat or electricity and public schools remain closed. Today marks the fourth day of school closures across the state and the first that won’t be replaced by a “snow day,” as most local districts schedule three a year. No one’s taking odds on schools opening tomorrow.
Well, there’s always next week, right? Not so much. Next Thursday and Friday mark the annual New Jersey Education Association Convention. The traditional locale, Atlantic City, was badly damaged by the hurricane: hotels flooded, the boardwalk torn up, buildings swept away by tidal surges.
Logic begs NJEA officials to cancel the convention and restore November 8th and 9th to schoolchildren. Imagine the good will! Anyway, the rest of November is traditionally a wash (no pun intended), with most districts scheduling half-days for student conferences the three or four days before Thanksgiving. And then, of course, the four-day weekend for Turkey Day.
In today’s New York Times, NJEA Spokesman Steve Wollmer acknowledged that plans for next week’s Convention are “uncertain,” adding, “in an ideal world we would hope that it would go forward, but it’s not an ideal world; it’s a mess down there, and it’s a mess where our members live.”
So, why not cancel the convention? Here’s why that’s unlikely to happen:
- First of all, the scheduling of the convention during the school year is not due to sappiness among local districts or, for that matter, the NJEA main office. In fact, it’s a gift from the NJ Legislature, enshrined in Statute 18A:31-32:
"Whenever any full-time teaching staff member of any board of education of any local school district or regional school district or of a county vocational school or any secretary, or office clerk applies to the board of education by which he is employed for permission to attend the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association, such permission shall be granted for a period of not more than two days in any one year and he shall receive his whole salary for the days of actual attendance upon the sessions of such convention upon filing with the secretary of the board a certificate of such attendance signed by the executive secretary of the association."
One could argue, then, that cancelling the convention and giving those days back to student instruction violates state statute and could only be ordered by an act of the Legislature, or by action from the union's front office, loathe to set a precedent. Neither scenario is likely before next Thursday.
But how weird is it going to look if, say, schools reopen on Monday and then close for Thursday and Friday for no reason other than a scrubbed plan for some teachers to go to Atlantic City or another hastily-arranged venue?
- Many teachers and school staffers don’t go to the Convention, but plan family vacations or other more recreational endeavors. NJEA membership is over 200,000 and the union estimates convention attendance at 50,000 (usually), but that includes a hearty dose of vendors and other non-school personnel. Since many teachers already have other plans, holding school on those days, minus legislative action rescinding the two days off with full pay, would require many substitutes and, perhaps, not as much value to students as a typical school day. Also, families often make plans for those days, so some students (assuming travel options are restored) have places to go and things to do.
So maybe this is an opportunity to reexamine NJ's tradition of holding annual NJEA conventions during the school year.
Back in 2009 I surveyed state associations to count how many unions held annual two-day conventions while students would typically be in school. At that time there were four: Vermont, Minnesota, Utah, and Wisconsin.
This is from the Vermont NEA website:
Why did the board vote to end Convention?
The VNEA also notes that across the country "attendance at conventions is declining."
The board, after more than a year of study, analysis and discussion, decided that the annual convention was no longer the most effective way to reach members and provide them with their professional development needs. Attendance – at its peak in the thousands – had dropped precipitously since 2006. It was clear to the board that members no longer needed to travel to a central location for their professional development needs, and that activities such as browsing textbooks and other materials is a process done largely on the Internet.
On the website of the Wisconsin Education Association Council is this remark:
Note: WEAC no longer hosts an annual convention in October.
So New Jersey is now one of three states in the country (Minnesota and Utah are the other two) that cancel school for two full days in order to accommodate convention schedules. Other states, Maryland for example, hold their conventions over a Friday and Saturday, saving one day of instructional time. Most other states hold conventions over a weekend or during the summer.
Maybe it's too late this year for the Legislature to act or for NJEA's leadership to offer to give the days back to kids or for schools to rejigger plans. But it's not to early to start planning for next year, is it? It would be a classy move by the NJEA and a surefire bipartisan hit among lawmakers, residents, and parents.