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Panel Mapping Out Path to Local Control of Schools Draws Crowd in Newark

About 100 gathered for first public meeting warned that task ahead will be difficult – but are assured that it will get done

jose leonardo
Jose Leonardo

Appointed amid much fanfare this summer, the nine-member panel forging a path for returning Newark public schools to local control has no legal standing. Its recommendations, due by the end of the school year, will have no binding authority.

But the group appointed by Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka – an eclectic mix of business, church and education leaders, along with a parent and a high school senior – drew a crowd when it held its first public meeting last night.

Among about 100 people gathered in the hall of the Abyssinian Baptist Church was Baraka himself, along with civic and union leaders. Members of the district’s local advisory board also attended, as well as -- interestingly – members of the school advisory board in Paterson, another school district under state control.

What they heard was a pledge by the Newark Educational Success Board to lay out a path for ending state control of the city’s schools – although panel members also warned that the task would not be easy.

Mary Bennett, a former principal of Newark’s Shabazz High School who is the group’s chair and unofficial spokesperson, outlined a methodical, piece-by-piece process via the state’s monitoring system, culminating with governance controls giving the local board the power to pick its own superintendent.

“The governance piece is the trigger,” she said. “When you get governance back – and not just hitting [targets] but demonstrating over time that you can handle it – now you have some authority.”

Like the educator she once was, she carefully explained the process to the audience, even repeating a few key points along the way. But she also warned the audience that the district they once knew, now racked by disputes and making itself over with a mix of charter schools and revamped district schools, was likely gone.

‘The district that we knew July 19, 1995, will never be again,” Bennett said, alluding to the date of the state’s takeover. “The district that we knew in 2010 will never be again.”

“We need to begin to think of what does the new Newark public schools look like,” she said. “It’s smaller and leaner, but we also want it to be more effective in providing a thorough and efficient education for every child.”

Bennett was hardly alone in making provocative comments from the dais. Baraka spoke for a few minutes, repeating his call for a return of local control and endorsing the group that he helped create – in the face of considerable political backlash -- with Christie.

State-appointed Superintendent Chris Cerf, a member of the panel, reiterated his “commitment to returning local control.”

But the deepest chord may have been struck by the youngest member of the panel, Jose Leonardo, a senior at Arts High School.

Wearing a white T-shirt amid the suits and blazers of his peers, Leonardo described his involvement as a leader of the Newark Student Union, which has been a powerful force in protesting the state’s control, even occupying district offices.

“To be completely honest, it does take a toll after a while,” he said of the protests. “A lot of students are very tired, very frustrated. We didn’t think it would take this long to get to this point. We just want our schools back, and it took a while for that message to hit home.”

Leonardo said the problems persist, with deep budget cuts looming for the district. Cerf has said there is still a $15 million-$20 million fiscal gap to fill, some of which is likely to come from the individual school budgets.

Leonardo said last night the Arts High School, a well-regarded magnet school in the district, has already lost a vice principal and seen cuts in its extracurricular programs.

“Our school year has started, and our school has next to nothing in its budget,” he said. “We shouldn’t be paying for this, because we didn’t cause this problem.

He concluded, “I can’t remember a time when this district was stable, and we need to get back to that.”

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