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Newark 'Working Group' Raises More Uncertainty in Troubled District

Initiated as condition of Superintendent Anderson's contract renewal, first task is to review unpopular One Newark reorganization

Rashon Hasan
Rashon Hasan, chair of Newark School Advisory Board.

One of the conditions that the Christie administration has imposed on its new contract with Superintendent Cami Anderson -- the creation of a so-called working group -- has raised both eyebrows and questions in the Newark school district.

That's not the only rider on the renewed contract, announced late last Friday by Gov. Chris Christie. It also calls for a yearly review of Anderson's performance leading the state-run district.

But most of the buzz was about the working group, which will serve as a community sounding board for Anderson.

The move was clearly meant to address the ongoing criticism that Anderson has done to little to reach out to parents and community leaders in her three years in her post, a perceived failure that has almost led to open political combat in the city.

But what the group will do and how it will operate remained open questions this week. Equally murky is the group's makeup and its charge.

How, for example, does it differ from the school board?

It hasn't helped that acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe, a key player in the contract renewal and the strategy moving forward, was out of the country all week on vacation. He is expected back to work Monday.

According to the announcement, the new group will be led by Hespe, Anderson, and Rochelle Hendricks, a former education commissioner and now the state’s higher education secretary.

But how many members beyond that has yet to be publicly specified. And who may be asked to serve -- both inside and outside the city -- is another question mark.

One prominent name has been Anderson’s predecessor, former superintendent Marion Bolden. Both before and after her retirement in 2008, Bolden has been a popular and well-respected voice in the community, even as she served as the state’s appointee.

Bolden last week said she was approached by Hespe about possibly participating, but had yet to answer, indicating that she was skeptical about the group’s role.

A number of others who have been named as possible candidates did not respond to queries

The chair of the School Advisory Board, Rashon Hasan, said he has asked Hespe that the board have two members on the new group, although he also said he hopes the main aim of the initiative is to encourage voices that may not always be heard.

“I have seen some names, but more important is what is being communicated to various groups -- parents, teachers, clergy, community leaders -- is this is a way for them to get further engaged,” Hasan said in an interview this week. “Here is a chance to step up.”

The biggest question remains what the group will be tasked to do. The administration’s announcement provided few details, other than to say the committee would start meeting “immediately” and it would begin by reviewing Anderson’s controversial One Newark reorganization plan.

The plan calls for a huge shift in the district, creating a universal enrollment system with charter schools and closing or restructuring a half-dozen district schools.

But it also has been the source of unsettling anxiety, raising unanswered questions of its own, such as how students will be selected for schools and if the district will suddenly start busing children across the city.

Hasan said he did think there was time to make needed adjustments, but the state’s renewal of Anderson's contract was in part intended to ensure some stability as the reorganization got underway.

“They felt she was the right person to get this off the ground,” he said.

Hasan said the board continues to press for local control over the selection of the district superintendent, but noted he would abide by the Christie administration’s choice for now.

He said Hespe has been forthcoming with the board so far, and he is giving him “the benefit of the doubt” moving forward.

“We will do what is in the best interest of the children of Newark, and work with the commissioner and whoever might be superintendent,” he said. “I think it would be irresponsible for me to say I wouldn’t work with her or the board wouldn’t work with her.”

Anderson and the board have been at near-constant odds for the past two years, and she said this winter she would no longer attend the board’s meetings, where her presence often sparked off loud public protests.

Hasan said this week that he had spoken with Anderson about this, and he was confident she would return to the meetings in the coming months.

Nonetheless, while the new working group will be tasked with reviewing the One Newark plan, the Christie administration has already launched its own study. Catherine Coyle, a former Jersey City administrator and now head of the state’s Regional Achievement Center in Essex County, is conducting an assessment of the plan, she said yesterday.

Coyle is not the only state-appointed player already in the district. Leroy Nunnery, a former administrator and special advisor in the Philadelphia schools, has been working with the Newark advisory board in completing the transition to returning fiscal control to the board, a move that can still be vetoed by Anderson or Hespe.

The transition plan is expected to be approved in the next month, Hasan said.

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