Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker standing side by side in Newark last week was overtly about Christie’s campaign to put a 2.5 percent cap on local property tax increases statewide.
But the way the two were talking, their joint appearance also may as well have been about their emerging alliance on their next big cause together: Newark public schools.
“Education reform is something we will be talking about,” Christie said at the press conference a week ago. “We need big changes here in Newark. We have great deal of agreement on that, and I’m not only willing but anxious to have the mayor a full partner on making sure the kids here get the best education they can get.
”We are failing the kids in that regard,” he said. “I know that, and the mayor knows that.”
Christie has yet to detail what he has in mind, and any partnership -- full or otherwise -- will come with its own political intrigue, as neither the Republican governor nor Democratic mayor shy much from being the center of attention. That Booker is mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in three years adds to the drama.
But long before that, there is no shortage of issues at a crossroads in Newark schools, all of which may count both the Christie and Booker administrations as key players.
For now, the 40,000-students district continues under state operation, with its short-term prospects of returning to local control doubtful after the latest state evaluations gave the district mixed grades, at best, officials said.
But Booker has long pressed his interest in the schools, and even if mayoral control is still a ways off, he has made clear that he wants his voice heard in key decisions.
An immediate one is whether to retain the district’s superintendent, Clifford Janey, who was appointed by former Gov. Jon Corzine and is now finishing his second year. The Christie administration has until Sept. 1 to notify Janey whether he’ll be retained in 2011.
Meanwhile, Janey is also negotiating with the Newark Teachers Union on their next labor contract, a contract that will require the approval of Christie and his education commissioner, Bret Schundler.
Schundler also earlier this month gave the district a big boost, awarding it five of the 10 federal grants statewide for promised improvements to five of its lowest-performing schools.
All this high-level attention on Newark schools has brought mixed reactions from within the city. Some said they are hopeful for the renewed efforts and resources that could come from the state, but others say the lack of information around especially Janey’s fate worries them.
After the appearance with Christie, Booker said he expects to be meeting with the governor in the coming weeks once the budget is resolved. He said he still stands by his belief in mayoral control, but said it is more about fundamental changes in how the district operates.
“After this budget, I will be right in Christie’s face every single day saying, ‘You own these schools under state takeover, partner with me in making real reforms,’ ” Booker said.
“The superintendent decision is important, but that is not the critical decision Gov. Christie has to make,” he continued. “He has to decide what attitude is he going to take: will it be a hands-off attitude and let things go on, or will he get in the saddle and trenches along with me, as he says he wants to do, and fight for real reform?”
Yet others said they wish the same discussions were going on with the community as a whole.
“I’ll be honest, I’m worried when the governor talks like that,” said Wilhemina Holder, president of the district’s high school parents organization. “I’d be hopeful if we had a decent conversation going on, that would make me hopeful for the attention. But that hasn’t occurred yet.”
Shavar Jeffries, president of the district’s elected advisory board, said he plans to meet with Schundler this week to discuss all the issues on the table.
"I think it's a good sign if the Governor has decided to partner with the Newark community in making important decisions affecting the educational lives of Newark children,” Jeffries said. “The Mayor, as the chief executive officer of the city, ought to play a leading role.
"But so must the advisory board,” he continued. “Under no circumstances would it be advisable for the board to be cut out of the very decisions we were elected to influence. And I'm confident the state shares this view and will work with us on all critical decisions affecting the district's future."