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Brave New World for Newark Schools as State Cedes Control

With one struggle ended, politicians, educators, advocates, and parents look to new challenges

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Newark Mayor Ras Baraka surrounded by reporters as the state cedes control of the school district back to the local school board.

Yesterday marked the beginning of the end of New Jersey’s control of Newark’s public school system, as the state Board of Education voted unanimously to start the process for the state to cede its direct oversight after more than two decades.

But in the immediate aftermath of the vote at the state Department of Education, the scrum of activity outside the Trenton offices showed just how complicated — and likely contentious — that process will be.

In the middle of the crowd was Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, dutifully answering reporters’ questions about what the vote meant for his city. Community organizers stood at the outskirts, celebrating the return to local control yet chanting that the fight had just begun.

And various bystanders — from union leaders to parent advocates — openly asked what happens next.

Among them was Mary Bennett, a demure former Newark high school principal and administrator —herself a graduate of Newark public schools — who chaired a task force for two years to lay the groundwork for the state to end its control.

Guarded optimism

Yesterday, she celebrated the historic vote, but also was cautious about what it meant. She likened it to buying a house without an independent inspector to check the plumbing and the roof.

“I’m excited, but I’m concerned,” Bennett said yesterday of the vote. “I’m concerned because I do not believe the community has a full picture of what we’re getting.”

Bennett’s were just some of the questions about what comes next for New Jersey’s largest school district, serving more than 30,000 in its public schools and hosting a fast-growing charter network that is already educating a third of the city’s children.

Day 1

The process calls for a lengthy transition that will essentially start today, with the state and local officials working out the details as to how the power will be passed.

Surely the most important benchmark will be the transition to a new superintendent, the central decision for the new local board after the state — Democratic and Republican governors alike — has made that decision for the past two decades. The current state-appointed superintendent, Chris Cerf, sees his contract expire next June and is not expected to seek renewal — nor would he be likely to get it.

Baraka and leaders of the local advisory board said there would be a nationwide search for Cerf’s replacement, but there already was a shortlist of names being circulated and preferences aired for it to be someone from Newark or at least with ties to the city.

“It’s important the next superintendent understand the community that he or she is going to serve,” said Marques-Aquil Lewis, president of the local board. “It will help (to be from Newark). Not a requirement, but it will help.”

Added Arcelio Aponte, president of the state board and a Newark native: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be (from Newark), but if it is, fantastic … It is not a prerequisite, but certainly someone who has shown urban education is something they have experience in.”

Others said they are hoping for just an honest broker for the city and its residents.

“There is a lot that hasn’t been said, that we have been short-financed, that we don’t have equity for these kids,” said Wilhemina Holder, a longtime parent advocate who made the trip to Trenton. “We have a lot of unaddressed needs.”

Regardless of who is chosen, how long would the state’s controversial policies remain in place? Under Gov. Chris Christie, especially, the district has gone through some seismic changes. The charter growth has been most notable, as well as a new universal enrollment system known as “One Newark” that eased access to those charter schools.

Panned and protested

The system, now three years old, was widely panned and protested in its first year, but has been less contentious since. Still, the local board last year voted to end the program outright, a move essentially vetoed by the state at the time.

Baraka in his campaign for mayor also had made a pledge to end One Newark — now called Newark Enrolls — but yesterday he was more equivocal, if not a little evasive.

When asked whether this was the beginning of the end of One Newark, the mayor said: “I think this is the beginning of what we think the district should be. People are still in this us versus them fight, but the reality is we are trying to build something new in the district.”

There is much to be decided before then, and state officials said they hope to address many of those questions in the upcoming transition process.

New Jersey has little experience in designing that process, however; it’s been a pioneer in seizing state control but not ceding it. A similar process is also underway in ceding full control to Jersey City, which was the first such takeover in the country.

Bennett, the former principal, said she hopes one of the first tasks is an independent forensic audit of the district to lay bare all the issues, financial and otherwise, that the new leadership will face.

“When the hand-off occurs, you don’t have a chance to play hot potato anymore,” she said. “You have to deal with it that day, you have to hit the ground running.”

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