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Newark Super's Unpopular Decision to Lease City Schools to Charters

Anderson overrides local advisory board's vote to block the leases, arguing it's best for children.

In the face of loud public opposition, Newark’s state-appointed superintendent has overruled her local advisory board and is moving ahead with her plan to lease district school buildings to charter schools.

Superintendent Cami Anderson announced late Tuesday that she would proceed with the five latest leases, each enabling a charter to move into part or all of a newly closed school, starting next year.

It’s been a hot topic in the city, and the elected local advisory board overwhelmingly voted against four of the five leases at a raucous special meeting on Monday.

But many expected Anderson would veto the actions, with the leases a key part of her reorganization of the district. Alerting the board on Tuesday, she said in a statement Wednesday that they were the best for the district and the schoolchildren.

“Approving these leases will increase the number of seats in high-quality schools and generate much needed revenue that we can invest in serving NPS [Newark Public School] students,” Anderson said in the statement. “It is time that we put what is in the best interest of our children first."

The move was sure to spike debate over the state’s 18-year control of the district, especially with the administration itself disclosing this week that operation under Anderson remains uneven.

The chairman of the local board last night was very critical of the decision.

“The board members took this issue of leasing very, very seriously,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, recently elected as the board’s chairman. “At this point, what has happened is that the democratic rights of the voters we represent have been totally disrespected.”

In her statement Tuesday, Anderson reiterated that the leases would depend upon the charters adhering to high standards in accepting and retaining all students and showing strong performance.

"Our singular focus remains working towards the day when every single Newark student attends a school that puts them on the path to college readiness -- regardless of the type of school,” Anderson said.

District officials have said that the five leases would draw annual income to the district in the range of $500,000 to $700,000. In addition, some of the lessees have committed to major renovations of some of the schools, including the century-old Eighteenth Avenue School, which was closed last month as part of Anderson’s reorganization plan.

The leases would be short and long term, with some of the schools having the option to buy after two years.

The head of the Newark Charter School Fund, an advocacy and funding group for the city’s burgeoning charter school network, yesterday issued a statement applauding Anderson’s decision:

"Although the superintendent in Newark has the power to veto the advisory board, we believe this power should be exercised judiciously,” said Mashea Ashton, the fund’s chief executive. “In this case, it was without a doubt the right decision."

“It does not make sense for the district to maintain half-empty buildings while high-performing charters as well as new charters poised for breakthrough results cannot find space in the city to educate Newark children.”

Baskerville-Richardson, the board chairman, said Anderson called her on Tuesday with her decision, and the two were frank in their exchange. She said the issue wasn’t just sharing space with charters, but the larger topic of the state’s control and its long-term goals.

“She said she felt it was best, and I reiterated to her that felt the community was leery of what was the state’s larger plan,” she said. “That there was a fear this was just the beginning.”

The advisory board has an ongoing legal challenge against the state’s continued takeover.

While the debate over the leases continues to brew, the Christie administration this week also released its latest evaluations of the district, the first report since Anderson was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie a year ago.

Like all districts, Newark schools go under periodic review through the state’s monitoring process, called the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC).

How a district fares in the QSAC review determines, in part, how or if the state intervenes, and improving scores in Newark over the past few years has given some ammunition for those pushing for the district to be returned to local control.

The latest scores don’t speak well for the district’s readiness for local control, but they also raised some questions as to some aspects of Anderson’s stewardship.

The QSAC ratings are broken down into five specific categories, from student achievement to budget controls, and none of them for Newark have improved in the last year, according to the letter released Tuesday.

In personnel management, the district went from meeting 98 percent of the state’s benchmarks in June 2011, to 48 percent in June of this year.

The letter sent to Anderson on Tuesday listed a number of specific concerns, including the district’s failure to bid out certain contracts. It also said the operation of the school lunch program continued to be out of compliance.

A spokeswoman for acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who has worked closely with Anderson, said he retained high confidence in her work and said some of her progress had yet to show in the QSAC review.

“Superintendent Anderson has laid out an ambitious agenda for ensuring all of Newark’s students have access to a high-quality education, and a number of those reforms are just beginning to take hold and thus might not be reflected in this review,” said spokeswoman Barbara Morgan." “We support the work she and her team are doing and believe that the district is moving in the right direction both operationally and academically.”

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