More than 500 people packed Newark's First Avenue School auditorium last night -- with scores more squeezed into the cafeteria or standing outdoors -- to protest Superintendent Cami Anderson's plans for the state's largest district.
The state-appointed superintendent's One Newark initiative calls for universal enrollment, expanded charters, and the closure or consolidation of more than a dozen schools.
And while these board meeting have been famously contentious under Anderson, this may have been the most raucous yet. There was virtually no support for the superintendent, who's in the third year of her tenure, and near constant heckling and chanting.
Anderson stoically sat through more than a dozen speakers denouncing her, many calling for her ouster and more than a few openly insulting her.
The tipping point came about two hours in, when one speaker asked Anderson about her own biracial child.
“Do you not want for our brown babies what you want for your brown baby?” said Natasha Allen, a community activist.
Anderson’s face reddened. She gathered her papers and walked off the stage to the derision of the crowd. Her senior staff in the front row got up and followed her out.
The board may have skipped half a beat, but after a few minutes its chairman said the meeting would proceed, almost in defiance of the state operation of the district that it has long challenged.
“This is our opportunity to show we are ready to conduct the business of this board,” said president Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson. “We don’t need the superintendent to do that.”
Reached afterward, Anderson would not comment.
Even before the incident, the meeting was noticeable for its rancor, with opponents of Anderson’s One Newark plan growing in confidence and number.
Parent-teacher organizations from some of the schools came out for the meeting, joined by all of the district’s teacher, staff, and supervisor unions, as well as the increasingly combative student union.
And they got some star-power last night, with the appearance of national American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who returned to Newark for the second time this winter to directly confront Anderson.
“The nation is watching Newark,” said Weingarten, arguably the nation’s preeminent union leader. “The emotion is palpable here, and the AFT will be here with you to fight for the community until community gets its schools back.”
It has not been a good couple of weeks in general for Anderson, with a new round of public criticism coming earlier this month when she suspended five principals for speaking or acting against her plans.
Each of them was reinstated, although two were reassigned, but that did little to quell the uproar, with the some last night calling them the “Newark Five.” They have since filed a federal complaint that their freedom of speech was violated.
Meanwhile, a bill is gaining momentum in the Statehouse that would set strict requirements on any closure or consolidation of a public school, including in state-controlled districts like Newark.
Much of the tension in Newark centers on the expansion of charter schools, which already serve a fifth of all students and are only expected to grow dramatically under One Newark.
But even plans to open up existing schools to a district-wide system have also brought opposition from those who say they want to stay in their neighborhood schools instead of crossing the city to attend another.