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Op-Ed: Newark Clergy Could Hold Key to Education Reform

By calling for moratorium, clergy could afford One Newark much-needed time and space

Al Koeppe

The essence of the unprecedented letter from the clergy is their call for thoughtful engagement on an issue -- educational reform -- that they support. Both their plea for engagement and their support for reform comes from their experiences administering to a restive Newark community.

Few, if any of us, see Newark through as personal a lens. I think this is useful to note because I assume that it was not a simple task to bring these men and women together for this purpose. Each of them, I am sure, brought his or her own anecdotes, perspectives, and biases to the process.

The letter also includes a formal request for a moratorium to allow civic engagement to proceed. I'm not surprised by this, as some are, since the timeline imperatives of One Newark are not widely known, and a request for abeyance would seem both logical and practical to those not fully knowledgeable of its details.

Additionally, while a moratorium may be late in its timing, the thinking is not new. Cautions regarding the pace of the introduction of the more delicate elements of "One Newark," such as the “transportation“ challenge, have been expressed by small groups and responsible individuals over the past year.

It is possible that the die has been cast too far down the table to delay implementation of One Newark in all apects. That's reality, and even this group, close as it may be to divine air support , would likely concede that some actions cannot be undone. The more important point is to begin productive dialogue on what remains to be done, to work together to improve what is underway, and to temper the divisive emotion in the community.

From a higher altitude, it would be difficult for me to reconcile on the one hand, electing not to engage at the advisory board meetings because of the lack of civility and then, on the other hand, when responsible parties with standing come together and ask for an opportunity to discuss the issues in a civil manner, to fail to engage that group as well. Let's face it, the Newark community (including the clergy) has been criticized for its passivity on critical issues. The clergy has taken an important, perhaps transformative, step forward here .

I believe that there may be a role here for a serious council of advisors. To be effective and to provide meaningful advice that alters behavior and perceptions, it will need to have the support of the administration and should include respected “elders" of the Newark community. As we know, there is an abundance of clear thinking, caring, and objective members of the community who would accept that responsibility. A good number of them are signatories to the letter.

History and personal experience have taught me that if it is to endure, fundamental change must come from within, within one's self, one's family, or society at large. Our children teach us this on a regular basis.

Change seldom endures when it is perceived to be imposed from the outside, and my concern is that, regardless of its merits, One Newark has that fatal flaw.

Prompted by what they are witnessing in the community the clergy seeks to reopen the door of civic engagement on educational reform in Newark. I believe that they, and others, can be valuable allies in necessary educational reform in Newark and that their advice and counsel deserves serious consideration.

Alfred Koeppe is the former president and chief operating officer of PSE&G and chief executive officer of NJ Bell. He recently retired as CEO of the Newark Alliance, a group of business, healthcare, higher education, and other institutions supporting public education in Newark since 1998.

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