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Cerf Wins Newark Schools Job in Narrow Vote – and Now Comes the Hard Part

New superintendent faces tensions over ties to Cami Anderson and community frustration with state control of district

chris cerf
Former Education Commissioner and new Newark schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf

Winning narrow approval by the State Board of Education yesterday may prove to be the easy part for the newly minted Newark school superintendent, Chris Cerf.

Almost right up until the 6-4 vote, Cerf’s confirmation was hardly assured – and in the end, the board wound up just one vote shy of falling into a deadlock. Even the words of affirmation from some members of the board that Cerf once presided over were hardly glowing.

The member who cast what was seen as the deciding vote said afterward he mostly voted in favor because he didn’t want to leave the district rudderless.

“If we voted him down today, it would been another month or two before another name was presented to us,” said Joe Fisicaro, the board’s vice president. “My feeling is this gives him a year to get things done, and hopefully in a year, this will be over.”

As Cerf assumes the job he once oversaw, he faces a host of hurdles and obstacles, both immediate and long-term.

Maybe most immediate will be trying to build trust in the face of tensions, if not hostility, over his appointment and his prior mentorship of outgoing superintendent Cami Anderson, who was hand-picked by Cerf for the job.

That was on display at the board meeting, which was marked by outbursts by protesters and the forced removal of John Abeigon, the new president of the Newark Teachers Union.

Beyond the public protests, the district faces a number of immediate challenges involving its controversial universal-enrollment system, “One Newark,” and a budget said to be in a $50 million hole with maybe even more layoffs to come.

Cerf’s confirmation was followed by testimony by Assistant Education Commissioner Peter Shulman, who has been leading a transition team in Newark following Anderson’s departure.

Shulman said there were some clear gains in the district under Anderson, but he did not sugarcoat the challenges.

The budget is a major issue, as Anderson had predicted there could be significant layoffs ahead. She had also overseen a pool of excess teachers that last year cost the district $20 million, and was expected to only grow. “There are challenges in that budget,” he said. “There are gaps in that budget.”

Shulman said that some of the assumptions in the budget “appeared overly aggressive, and we are looking at contingency plans in ways we can save money in the 2015-16 school year.”

Asked afterward whether additional layoffs may be required, he said, “We are looking to see what kind of layoffs may be needed.”

The district also faces six open labor contracts, including one with the NTU as a follow-up to the historic pact of three years ago that included the state’s first-ever large-scale performance bonuses for teachers. Such harmony will be more difficult to find this time around.

“For Superintendent Cerf, they should be on the front-burner.” Shulman said as advice to his former boss.

Late yesterday, Cerf spoke from the Newark public schools’ downtown headquarters, and said he was ready for the challenges ahead and committed to a process that would return the district to local control after 20 years of state operation.

“I am committed to a environment of openness and transparency, and committed to achieving a transition to local control and to engaging the civic leadership of the city in that process,” he said.

Cerf is in a tough spot, as he was instrumental three years ago in retaining state control in the district by using his discretionary powers as commissioner. At the time, the district had met most of its benchmarks under the state’s monitoring system, but Cerf ceded only incremental controls after facing a challenge in court.

Asked about his apparent change in position, Cerf said yesterday his decision was always based on balancing the interests of students with the importance of local input.

Those dynamics have shifted, he said.

“Finding the intersection of those two values, the time is right,” he said. “The timing to have an orderly process is now.”

Residents of the city awaiting Cerf’s arrival had mixed feelings. The handful of people who came down to Trenton protest at the meeting called the vote an insult to Newark and its citizens.

“This is a slap in the face of every child in Newark,” said Donna Jackson, a prominent activist in the city.

Others were waiting to see Cerf’s first actions on the job. Some were pleased that he has agreed to attend the local school board’s public meetings, something Anderson stopped doing after they became especially raucous.

“Obviously, we’re upset that we are still considered powerless, and can’t even make a recommendation that the state will listen to,” said Ariagna Perello, the chair of the district’s local board.

“But we are not closing any possibilities to work with (Cerf),” she continued. “I am open and optimistic that we will return to local control soon, and that he will be different than the last superintendent. But obviously we have to be cautious.”

State board President Mark Biedron acknowledged it was a tough vote, but said he hoped the members -- including those who voted “no” -- would stand behind the new superintendent.

“Now, we move on and support Chris Cerf,” he said last night. “But believe me, we’ll be laser focused on what we promised.”

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