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Unusual Mystery and Drama Mark Meeting Today of State Board of Education

Contrary to panel’s typical unanimity, outcome uncertain for vote on appointing Chris Cerf as Newark's new schools superintendent

newark school protest
A protest rally outside Newark City Hall.

The State Board of Education is nothing if not predictable, its rulemaking process deliberate to a fault and its unanimous votes common.

So, the mystery and guessing-game going into the board’s meeting today is pretty unusual -- but then again, so are the times in the world of New Jersey education,

The board is slated to vote on whether to appoint former state education commissioner Chris Cerf to replace outgoing Newark schools superintendent Cami Anderson in the state-run district.

To say the least, the drama around the switch has been nearly unprecedented, given the personalities involved and the timing of the announcement by Gov. Chris Christie in the days leading up to the launch of his presidential campaign.

In the announcement, Christie said the appointment would be the first step toward returning local control to the school district after more than 20 years.

It’s hard to predict the outcome of the vote today, although the odds are on Cerf’s side. He has a history with the state board, and a majority of the 11 members were appointed by Christie.

But the fact there is even any doubt about the vote is unusual, given that any dissent within the board – whether it’s over a policy or an appointee -- is usually addressed behind closed doors.

There has clearly been some pushback in reaction to the move, including outright protests like one held yesterday in front of Newark City Hall that drew about 100 people, including Mayor Ras Baraka, a key player in the agreement to remove Anderson who is more lukewarm about Cerf’s ascension.

Baraka never mentioned Cerf’s name yesterday but said the end-game is about the state returning local control as soon as possible, a process he and others have said will likely take at least a year or two.

“We have an opportunity, and we should seize it,” Baraka said. “Whatever your concerns are, you should voice them, but the reality is we are marching and fighting for local control.”

“We want to decide ourselves who the superintendent is,” he said. “We want to decide for ourselves how the school board looks, we want to decide ourselves what happens with education in the city of Newark. We want self-determination, and we want it now.”

Contacted late yesterday, state board President Mark Biedron would not divulge his intentions or any head counts up to now, but he said the board continues to talk to a number of players in and outside Newark.

“I have been getting every perspective I can possibly get my hands on,” he said in an interview.

“All the legislative members, all my board members, community members and Cerf himself,” Biedron said. “I spent several hours on the phone with him. We are not just sitting here voting yes or no, we are doing our due diligence.”

One expected “no” vote may come from the board’s longest-running member, Ronald Butcher, who has raised questions from the start. He said yesterday that he is “not 100 percent” decided on how he will vote, and that he still has questions and concerns.

“When people say Cerf is the best man for the job, he may be, but we’ve only looked at one person,” Butcher said.

“And our whole goal is doing what is the best thing for the kids,” he said. “I know everyone talks about local control, and that’s an admirable thing, but our whole goal has to be around educating those kids.”

Others off the state board said there have been a number of phone calls and emails with board members over the last few days to express opinions, be they concerns or support.

Among them was Ariagna Perello, chair of the Newark school board that could ultimately be in charge. Attending the rally yesterday, she said her conversations with state board members were a chance for her to express her own board’s vote for a different superintendent than Cerf and also the end of the controversial One Newark reorganization plan.

“They listened, but we’ll see,” she said. “In the end, it is political.”

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