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Suspension of Dissident School Principals Revs Up Newark Opposition

State-appointed superintendent under fire for reprimand of four who spoke out at rally

Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson speaking to students as Hawkins Street School.
Credit: Howard Best/NPS
Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson

Cami Anderson faces a new imbroglio over her reforms for Newark public schools – and new political discord.

The latest brouhaha is over the Newark superintendent’s suspension late last week of four principals who spoke out at a community rally against her plans to close or consolidate more than a half-dozen schools.

The exact reasons for the suspensions were unclear, with critics claiming it was purely because of their dissent, while others wondered if there had been outright defiance. The district itself is describing it as a personnel matter.

Whatever the reasons and the aftermath, the incident has sparked a new level of reaction from the political players within the city – and charges centered on how the developments in the state-run school district fit into the broader political turmoil that is taking place around Gov. Chris Christie.

City Councilman and mayoral candidate Ras Baraka has called for Anderson’s ouster in the aftermath of the suspensions.

Baraka has gradually become the locus of the opposition to the Anderson reforms, with both popular support by way of his mayoral campaign but also because of his standing as principal at the city’s Central High School.

“Ms. Anderson's action in suspending the four principals is the last straw in a chain of inept and horribly out-of-touch decisions,” Baraka said in a statement. “The Newark school district is not a military dictatorship, and Ms. Anderson is neither an army general nor a police chief. Her behavior must be governed by the principles of our democracy.”

The rhetoric is not surprising, but the mayoral race to succeed former Mayor Cory Booker is heating up in the city, and especially notable was that Baraka’s claims drew some support yesterday from his chief challenger for mayor, Anibal Ramos Jr.

Ramos, also a city councilman, had been known to be more supportive of Anderson, but he also questioned her actions in a statement released yesterday, saying the suspensions should be “thoroughly investigated.”

“The only criteria by which an educator in Newark should be judged is by determining whether he or she is providing access to a quality public education for every single child in Newark,” Ramos said. “Principals and teachers must have the freedom to convey their views about the best way to move our public school system forward.”

Adding to the intrigue, all this comes at a time when Christie and his administration have been left weakened by the scandal surrounding alleged political retribution in Fort Lee that resulted in closure of George Washington Bridge lanes, as well as the Hoboken mayor’s new allegations of strong-arm tactics by Christie’s administration.

Christie, who appointed Anderson amid much fanfare three years age, specifically praised her in his closely watched State of the State address last week, inviting her as a guest of honor to his Statehouse speech.

In an interview yesterday, Baraka was quick to link the mounting Christie scandals to the latest developments in Newark.

“This smells of the whole thing that Chris Christie is under the spotlight for now,” Baraka said. “You can’t just punish people who disagree with you.”

Anderson for her part has not commented on the suspensions or the ensuing controversy.

Her spokesman, Matthew Frankel, said in a statement: “"The characterization that the Superintendent suspended four school principals for voicing their opinion is unequivocally false. It is NPS' obligation to ensure families and students have a safe environment as well as ensure equitable access to an education. The matter is currently being investigated and is confidential."

And as for claims that Anderson has stifled dissent, Frankel cited Baraka remaining on his job as Central High School principal last year while he mounted criticism against Anderson. He has since taken a leave from the post.

“Mr. Baraka was even allowed by the superintendent to take a leave of absence from his job at NPS, keeping his benefits and pensions,” Frankel said.

The apparent root of the latest back-and-forth is a South Ward rally led by Baraka last Wednesday to protest Anderson’s “One Newark” blueprint for reorganizing the district, including the closures and consolidations, and creation of a new universal enrollment system that would meld district and charter schools.

At the rally, the principals of four schools affected by the plan spoke about the alleged short-changing of their schools and what they called an administration “attack” that they said was behind the school closings.

Baraka identified the four fired principals: Tony Motley of Bragraw Avenue School, Grady James of Hawthorne Avenue School, Dorothy Handfield of Belmont-Runyon and Deneen Washington of Maple Avenue.

Their words at the rally were indeed strong. A videotape of the event showed one principal saying specifically that she would defy some aspects of the new enrollment plan, while another said he welcomed protests at his school. But they also spoke at length about what they called the lack of resources provided their schools and the progress they had made despite that.

The school principals were reportedly called in Friday and told they should not report to work today, pending an investigation. A resolution to the investigations is expected as soon as today, one source close to the matter said.

News of the firings immediately set off reaction by the growing number of critics of Anderson’s reforms, with the administrators union releasing a statement of protest and Baraka calling for Anderson’s ouster. A protest was lodged by the president of local advisory committee as well.

None of this is new to Anderson, who has been at loggerheads with most, if not all, of these parties for months or longer. The principals union was already protesting the layoff of dozens of administrators this year, and the advisory board cast a no-confidence vote against Anderson last year.

Baraka, too, has been in open battle with Anderson, leading the city council to also call for a moratorium on her plans.

Yesterday, Baraka said he was asked by Anderson’s office to take a leave of absence last June after his criticisms became more and more public, a move he did not accept until December so he could run mayoral campaign.

“I didn’t leave when they asked me to leave but when I thought it was right,” he said.

Asked yesterday whether an employee threatening to defy the district was a different matter, he defended the principals in question as doing little more than protesting verbally.

“They didn’t openly do anything, they just talked about it,” he said. “It’s one thing to say it, it’s another to do it.”

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