Chris Cerf had two audiences yesterday when he came before the State Board of Education as Newark’s newly minted school superintendent.
One was obviously the board itself, which narrowly approved the former state education commissioner for the Newark job last month in the wake of a contentious debate over who could best lead the state’s most tumultuous school district.
But as he made his first extensive public comments as superintendent, Cerf also faced a larger audience, both in and outside Newark, which has been hopeful but wary about how much will change under the man who first appointed controversial former superintendent Cami Anderson.
For a day at least, Cerf seemed to do well with the first audience, delivering a conciliatory and upbeat message, and with some board members who voted against his appointment saying that would now fully support his efforts.
Whether he fares as well with that larger audience remains to be seen.
Cerf's talk yesterday – he gave a brief presentation, followed by a longer question-and-answer period -- was clearly meant to send a message that he would set a different tone from Anderson and would move to close some of the rifts that marked her tenure.
He used the word “trust” and “healing” a number of times. And he repeated his commitment to returning the district to local control after 21 years, the central piece of the compromise reached by Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka that saw Anderson exit and Cerf replace her.
But he was light on details on how he planned to win back the public's trust and how the transition to local control would take place. One reason, Cerf acknowledged, was that he was still getting a handle on that task ahead.
“I’ve been at this all of 28 days, so I want to level set around the degree I can fully report on my work,” he said. “But I will say I have been enormously grateful to the many, many people I have been able to meet with, learn from, and work with.”
“The community has been very warm, very open and very responsive to turning the page and moving forward,” Cerf said.
One of the vaguest topics was the status of the Newark district’s billion-dollar budget. Cerf acknowledged that he faces a wide revenue gap going into the school year. Afterward, though, he deflected questions when reporters asked him to be more specific about the extent of the deficit, saying he first wanted to update the local school board, which next meets Aug. 25.
“I think it is very important, and a matter of respect, that my first comments [on the budget] are directed to the school board,” he said.
Under Anderson, various numbers were circulated, with some reports that the budget gap could be high as $50 million-$60 million, portending extensive layoffs in the district.
While Cerf wasn’t giving specifics, state Education Commissioner David Hespe said afterward that the latest estimates were not as high as $50 million, nor as low as $10 million.
“It is in the tens of millions,” Hespe said.
Another prime topic was "One Newark," the reorganization plan started under Anderson, in which students enrolled in both district and charter schools through a central choice system.
"One Newark" may have been Anderson’s most disputed initiatives. Critics said it hurt neighborhood schools and favored charters, while requiring some students to cross the city to their schools.
Asked if he would change anything in "One Newark," Cerf only said that he supported the plan's intent to give parents broader choices. But he also acknowledged that the system left some families unsatisfied and that there are conflicts to work out.
“Whenever we make a decision, there will be winners and losers,” he said. “And the losers will be unhappy.”Board member Joseph Fisicaro asked Cerf what would happen in the next year or two to prepare the district for local operation that didn’t happen in the last 21 years of state control.
“We are going to return local control,” Cerf replied. “The timeline for that is not cast in stone, but I’m sure of at least that.”
Board President Mark Biedron ended the meeting by asking Cerf what he views as his biggest challenge.
“The single biggest challenge here is to restore a sense of civility and openness and transparency around a shared vision that every child deserves a quality education,” Cerf responded.
“There is a lot of healing that needs to happen,” he continued. “But I also know that there are also a lot of good, smart things that are happening, too.”