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Op-Ed: Newark Schools - Handing Back the Keys Is a Start

What the residents of Newark and the people New Jersey need is a full and independent audit of the deals, contracts, and other agreements made while the district was under state control

John M. Abeigon
John M. Abeigon

Twenty-two years of state takeover of the Newark Public Schools came to an end on February 1, 2018. Books have been written on the subject and no doubt more will be written in the future. Hundreds of newspaper articles and opinion pieces have been published regarding the infamous $100 million Facebook donation. Most of that donation went to settle labor contracts (two years in arears, mind you), but the balance was consumed by so-called education reform groups and consultants.

No expense was too great to present to the state taxpayers the appearance of a graceful exit. Over the past two months their media machine has boasted about the instructional gains of the Newark Public Schools under their watch. Some of it true and verifiable - such as improved classroom test scores and higher numbers of effective and highly effective teachers. Much of it is self-serving, such as how much of this success was due to the efforts of the corporate-style education reformers appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie and not the teachers themselves, who met and exceeded the challenges of the new teacher evaluation system meant to torture them.

Newark teachers are evaluated in a manner unlike any of their counterparts elsewhere in the state; the Newark Public Schools, under a waiver, and wave of reformers, developed its own evaluation tool. Teachers who had been evaluated under the traditional framework not only adapted but exceeded expectations, with over 80 percent of the teachers being ranked effective or higher. While not a perfect framework, it did allow for teachers ranked highly effective to receive a bonus. NTU members remained at the table as part of a committee constantly reviewing and providing feedback to fight for equitable implementation.

Due Diligence

But let's not pat ourselves on the back just yet. Handing Newark back the keys is a start. What exactly are we getting back? After 22 years and almost 22 billion dollars, what have we got to show for it? What more could have been done? Having dealt with corporate-styled leadership for the past eight years, we learned that there are financial matters and material contracts that need to be audited, reviewed, and considered if we are going to claim to have done our due diligence to the state and the taxpayers.

One of the most critical components of a due diligence inquiry is the review of all material contracts and commitments entered into by the state during its occupation. We would request of the new commissioner of education that outside independent auditors be asked to review and report on the following: guaranties, loans and credit agreements, supplier contracts, settlement agreements, employment agreements, and real estate leases/purchase agreements.

The auditor on behalf of the state and the taxpayers should review all of the Newark Public Schools historical financial statements and related financials for the past eight years. Topics of inquiry or concern to New Jersey taxpayers should include the following: Do the financial statements and related notes set forth all liabilities of the school board, both current and contingent? What is the condition of assets and liens? What indebtedness was created by the former state-appointed superintendent guaranteed by the school board, what are its terms, and when does it have to be repaid?

The Newark Teachers Union has long claimed that the state-appointed Newark schools superintendents, starting with Cami Anderson and continuing under former state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, have failed taxpayers and students miserably with not as much as an insincere regret for not having done more. They used their opportunity to push an agenda of corporate for-profit charter schools and to enrich themselves, their friends, and the politically connected.

Only a full and independent audit can prove us wrong. Only an open public audit should satisfy the state's Department of the treasury and the taxpayers.

John M. Abeigon is president of the 4,000-member Newark Teachers Union, Local 481 of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.

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