Charters v. traditional public schools. Leaked reorganization plans. The choice of the next superintendent.
For the better part of three hours on Saturday, New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, stood before a full elementary school auditorium in Newark and got an earful on any number of topics, large and small.
And for all the rancor, one common thread prevailed: the city’s continued resentments over the state’s ongoing control – and the community’s lack of it -- in New Jersey’s largest school system, now 16 years old.
A parent leader in the back of the auditorium summed up the sentiment that pervaded the room.
“Through all these distractions, the real problem is what is going on with the schools, what is going on with the budget, and why weren’t we involved from the very beginning," said Sharon Smith, a parent of five children in both traditional and charter schools.
Wilhemina Holder, a long-time activist, put it more bluntly: “The secrecy is why we are in this room today.”
It’s nothing new. The state’s takeover has been the source of boiled-over tensions for years. There were the raucous meetings during the 1995 takeover itself, and then notably in 2003 in a tug of war over who would be the state’s appointed superintendent.
This time, the spark has come in several forms, not the least of which was Gov. Chris Christie’s labeling the district as a whole a "failure" and his open call for its overhaul. Soon after, there was the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, which has spawned as much skepticism as celebration.
Then most recently came a leaked internal report that laid out in detail a consolidation or closing of more than a dozen low-performing schools. In their place, or at least in the same buildings would be new and existing charter schools, among other options.
Cerf’s first task on Saturday was to try to explain the 39-page document, first reported in the Newark Star-Ledger, as only a working draft and not a final plan. His challenge was all the greater since Cerf was a founder of the consulting group that wrote the report, Global Education Advisors, although he said he had divested once named commissioner and had barely even read the document.
"It was a document that was very, very unfortunately leaked into the world, and has been grossly misreported and misperceived as a plan or proposal, when in fact it was a selection of scenarios that was being prepared for public discourse," Cerf said.
"It is highly, highly regrettable it came to you in that form, and I want to start by apologizing to the community," he said.
Cerf sought to strike a conciliatory tone throughout, even acknowledging the state’s control of the district held "an utterly undistinguished record over that period."
But even though collegial, his words drew derision from some quarters. Willie Rowe, a Newark grandparent and former East Orange police officer, was the first in line at the two microphones set up for the audience and set the early tone, openly questioning Cerf’s qualifications to be commissioner.
Cerf was previously deputy chancellor in New York City schools, where questions have recently been raised about the extent of its much-touted achievement gains.
"New York City is a failed experiment," Rowe yelled at one point.
That led to one of the testier moments of the meeting at the Louise A. Spencer School, with Cerf not taking well to the personal challenge and briskly taking on Rowe when he interrupted the commissioner’s answer.
“I will answer the question if you allow me to talk, thank you very much," Cerf said, quieting the room, if even for a moment.
"I take my reputation and integrity as seriously as any," he continued. "I stand by what I believe in, I stand by my reputation, and I stand by my commitment to children."
As much as Rowe set the early mood -- including a few derisive cat-calls from the back of the auditorium -- so did the prevalence of the charter school leaders and parents in the audience, defending their schools against charges they were interlopers in the district.
Some, in matching red shirts, clustered in a front section of the auditorium and cheered at every chance. At least 30 parents and staff came from the North Star Academy charter schools.
"What is so wrong with charter schools?" declared one charter school mother.
Cerf is clearly a fan of charter schools -- his office recently approved 23 new ones in the state, including 10 in Newark -- but he tried to temper any notion that they would be taking over the district.
"Nobody believes the solution is charter schools," he said. "The solution is an array of great choices for our children."
And as the meeting continued, Cerf fared better, promising to hear out every concern, agreeing with a majority of them, and promising to return.
For one, he said that the community would be involved in the selection of the new next superintendent, now narrowed to eight candidates and likely to be decided in the next month.
"I will commit to you that in the next round, parents will be part of the process," he said.
With the last question asked, Cerf even stuck around another 20 minutes to talk to parents some more. But the very last to leave was Shavar Jeffries, the president of the district’s elected advisory board, the body whose very existence as only advisory represents the state’s ongoing control.
Jeffries has been supportive of some of the changes that the Christie administration has talked about but critical about how it has implemented them.
"My folk feel offended and disrespected," Jeffries said last night. "Even if this report was only a draft, when you see that level of detail, it smacks of them making unilateral decisions about our kids."
"I believe in reform, but you have to come to the parents and community first," he said. “Trenton seems to always act first and come to the community second. It needs to be the other way around."