So Sunlight got it right back in July when we were alerted to a job opening for Executive Director of the NJEA and surmised that Steve Swetsky was out after a short stint as ED. We noted that Swetsky’s two predecessors, Vince Giordano and Ed Richardson, served six-year terms, while Swetsky will serve only three years. The NJEA was curiously silent about Swetsky’s departure and soon took down the job opening notice. As usual, New Jersey’s media failed to follow up on the tip, so New Jersey citizens were once again left in the dark about the state’s most powerful special interest.
Today’s NJEA announcement makes no mention of any health issues and merely mentions that Swetsky will be retiring in March 2023, so Sunlight will assume that health is not the reason.
We note several factors which may relate to Swetsky’s quick exit.
Change in Tone Away from All-Politics, All-the-Time. Over the past year, there has been a notable change in the focus and tone of the NJEA website. Gone are the overtly political backdrops and the predominance of political issues. The rejiggered site is focused on students and members, stressing the success of New Jersey public schools and the various benefits that membership in the NJEA affords. Swetsky was a longtime political organizer who came from the ranks of UniServ, the NJEA political organizing arm. Was the change in the website a precursor to a change in executive director?
Aggressive Anti-Parent Campaign Thrusts Teachers into Local Political Battles. These moves fit into an overall context where the NJEA has come under a great deal of criticism as a result of parental unhappiness over what they saw in New Jersey public schools during the pandemic. Many blamed the NJEA for helping to keep many schools closed for extended periods. They also didn’t like the NJEA propagating controversial education policies like the state’s new sex ed guidelines or critical-race-theory-type curricula. This has led to significant parental backlash and challenges against the NJEA-dominated status quo on many school boards. The NJEA’s aggressive statewide campaign against these parents has thrust teachers into the uncomfortable position of opposing parents in local school board races. Again, Sunlight speculates whether the NJEA’s using its political organizing muscle so broadly and aggressively has upset teachers who do not want to be thrust into local political battles. Was the political organizer Swetsky behind the NJEA’s aggressive tactics?
NJEA Is Clearly Losing Members. Most importantly, it’s clear that the NJEA is losing members. First, we know that the NJEA website stopped posting exact membership numbers and reduced its reported total membership from a precise 203,520 to a round 200,000, so that’s a drop of bout 3,500 members. But Sunlight was also provided with a recording of a meeting between NJEA staff and a local association where the NJEA staff stated that membership was “nearly 200,000,” so it’s pretty clear that the number is sub-200,000. This accords with Sunlight’s own calculations. As shown in Table 1, the NJEA’s financial statements indicate that since FY2018 — the year prior to the Janus decision — the NJEA increased full-time, active member dues from $897 to $991, or an increase of +10.5%. During the same period, dues revenues increased by +6.7%. This implies a membership drop of -3.8%.
Table 1. NJEA Implied Membership Loss
FY2018 FY2021 % Change
Dues $897 $991 10.5%
Dues Revenues (000s) $117,054 $124,931 6.7%
Implied Membership Loss -3.8%
A drop of-3.8% from 203,520 would result in a current membership of 195,786, or “nearly 200,000.” Again, Sunlight speculates that an ED who presided over large membership losses would be in a precarious position, particularly if he was a political operative whose overt politicization of the NJEA alienated both parents and rank-and-file teachers.
What we do know for certain is that Swetsky, the veteran political operative, is out. Perhaps we could do away with all the speculation and see some enterprising journalist broach these subjects with the NJEA. We are quite sure the New Jersey public would be interested. Now if only there were a media outlet that were interested.