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Anderson’s Departure from Newark Schools Marks End of Tumultuous Period

Hespe announces that his predecessor, Chris Cerf, will pilot stormy district – with local control next goal

Data visualization by Colleen O'Dea

When Newark superintendent Cami Anderson last week led a teacher-training session on special education, she gave no clue that it would be one of her last days on the job.

For close to two hours in the North Ward’s Bolden Student Center, Anderson was animated and purposeful, hardly reflecting someone with one foot out the door.

“You can reach me anytime, I’m available,” she told a reporter afterward.

But that door shut yesterday, when state Education Commissioner David Hespe abruptly announced following a meeting with Anderson that she would be leaving her post after a tumultuous four years leading the state’s largest district.

It was a busy day of departures. Gov. Chris Christie also announced state treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, health commissioner Mary O’Dowd, and banking and insurance commissioner Ken Kobylowski would also be stepping down.

But Anderson’s departure was the most dramatic. Whether she was pushed out of or chose to leave the $255,000 post is uncertain, but either way, it was not a complete surprise to everyone else given persistent rumors for weeks, if not months.

The second jolt came with the news of her likely replacement: former education commissioner Chris Cerf, the man who appointed Anderson and hardly seemed a prime choice to calm the roiling waters of Newark.

Hespe said he would name Cerf to the job under a three-year renewable contract, pending state Board of Education approval in early July. Cerf had served as commissioner from 2011 to 2014, before taking a job as CEO of Amplify Insight, an education software company.

A third surprise may come with what was only hinted at yesterday, when Hespe said there would be a joint announcement between Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka later in the week about what happens next.

An unlikely pairing, to be sure. Neither side was saying much more, but the expectation is that Christie and Baraka will put in place a plan to return local control of the schools to the city after more than 20 years of state operation.

How that would happen or how long it would take is conjecture, but several people said they could only hope the day’s flurry of announcements would portend some significant change in the fate of the district.

“If this is a path for returning local control to the people of Newark, I’m all for it,” said Mark Biedron, the president of the State Board of Education, which must confirm Cerf, as well as any next steps in state operation.

When asked if the state’s control of the Newark schools is at that crossroads, he answered, “We are so at that point.”

Baraka did not release a statement. His silence regarding the announcement was notable, especially for someone who has been Anderson’s staunchest critic, even before his 2013 election. He has demanded of Christie and even of President Barack Obama that she be removed

Other local critics were laying back as well, not wanting to spoil their best shot yet at the end of state operation.

“They gave us back the keys to the community,” said Lucious Jones, an outspoken parent activist and frequent thorn in Anderson’s side.

When asked whether Cerf was seen as a more promising than Anderson, he said, “We’re willing to start somewhere. If that means starting again with Cerf, I think he at least has some sensitivity.”

“Today, I’m feeling good, at least for the moment,” Jones said. “But I know there will be twists and turns.”

The day’s news was almost anticlimactic for what has been a running battle over Anderson’s leadership in the district. For the better part of two years, there have been frequent protests, at least , and a number of no-confidence votes calling for her departure.

In the face of the protests, Anderson stopped going to the main public meetings of the local advisory board more than a year ago. Local and state politicians and even clergy joined in the outcry.

Anderson soldiered on with the persistent message that her reforms were working. The main message was about the One Newark plan, the universal enrollment system that remade how and where students attended their schools. She also trumpeted improving graduation rates and pointed to the landmark teachers contract that included the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses for exemplary teachers.

In the backdrop, too, was the national acclaim of the $100 million donation by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to help improve the city’s schools, district and charter.

In announcing her departure, Hespe praised Anderson’s work on behalf of the district.

“Superintendent Anderson has worked tirelessly over the last four years to implement a bold educational vision for the students and parents of Newark,” Hespe said in the announcement.

Anderson issued a statement two hours after Hespe’s, proclaiming that her goals were accomplished.

“I have worked for four years to usher in critical improvements to the school system that have leveled the playing field for Newark students and paved the way for academic and social success,” she said. “I am extremely proud of what my team and I have collectively accomplished.”

She, too, pointed to a return of local control as an ultimate goal, one she infrequently invoked on the job.

“Now, after 21 years in state control, Newark Public Schools are finally in a stable condition and can begin the return to local leadership,” she said. “This is in large part due to aggressive initiatives and infrastructure improvements that have been implemented during the last four years.”

Yesterday, Christie did not issue a separate statement, and there were few others rushing to Anderson’s defense. Democratic legislators representing Newark said her exit was a long time coming.

“It’s been a troubling and difficult last several years under Cami Anderson for families, students, and faculty,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), chair of the Senate education committee. “Her departure is long overdue.”

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ), joined in the chorus of critics.

“Under Superintendent Anderson’s leadership, Newark students, especially those with disabilities, have seen their educational opportunities eroded under the guise of school reform,” he said in a statement.

“There has been a complete lack of transparency and accountability from her administration, and a total lack of respect for the people of Newark,” he added.

There wasn’t much cheering for her replacement, either. State Sen. Ronald Rice Sr. and State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), who co-chair the Joint Committee for the Public Schools, said Cerf’s close relationship with Anderson hardly portended many changes from her reforms, including the One Newark plan.

“I’m speechless,” Jasey said of Cerf’s appointment. “He’s much too closely associated with her, and I think he has some serious issues of trust as well … I was hoping there would be someone who could build bridges and calm things down.”

But even Rice said the move was a step in the right direction.

“The major thing now is Cami is gone,” he said. “The rest of it, I’ll take a day at a time.”

Anderson does stand to gain by leaving now, at least financially. Under the contract that was renewed in February for 2015-2016, she gets get six months pay -- roughly $127,000 -- if she is dismissed before June 30, 2015. That would drop to a severance of three-months pay if dismissed after July 1.

Cerf’s salary in the new post was not disclosed yesterday.

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