Now Comes the Hard Part: Newark Starts to Consider its $100 Million Options

John Mooney | November 1, 2010 | Education
It's early days as Mayor Booker's community campaign and a grass-roots group both begin to firm up their ideas.

Even as Newark Mayor Cory Booker prepared for today’s launch of a community campaign about the Facebook $100 million, some 80 people were scattered across Weequahic High School auditorium last Wednesday evening with ideas of their own.

The meeting was hosted by a group called the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools, a quickly assembled collection of longtime Newark community and parent leaders who said they wanted to be heard in their own right.

Unlike the growing network around the gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, this group doesn’t have much of a media strategy, besides some print-outs and a Facebook page started by a Newark high school student.

Its title: “What’s Wrong in Our Schools That $100 Mill Could Fix?”

But as the site indicates – not to mention its 500-plus Facebook friends — this group isn’t short of suggestions and figured why wait for the big show when you can start your own.

“Just like those with big checks and big ideas, we’re bringing in people, too,” said Junius Williams, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute and one of the group’s leaders. “They may not have big checks, but they’ll have real big ideas.”

Such will be the challenge for Booker in the coming weeks, as the mayor pursues a sophisticated organizational campaign to build community input and support for what happens next with the Zuckerberg money and the matching funds that Booker is bound to raise.

The Formal Launch

The formal launch of the Booker’s campaign is to come today with a ceremony at the new Market Street offices of the Partnership for Education in Newark, or PENewark.

According to a summary handed out at a series of stakeholder meetings over the past few weeks, the campaign will include 10 community meetings, two in each ward; coffee klatches in dozens of homes and centers; and a citywide neighborhood canvass.

“It will be an incredible community initiative that will involve knocking on every door in the City of Newark , major community forums, focus groups and clipboard canvassing,” Booker said last week.

“On TV, websites, social media, this is a full campaign to engage the residents in a substantive way to create a vision for our schools,” he said.

Booker said there already has been a considerable agreement on some core principles of teacher training and recruitment, literacy focus and “making sure we connect the disparate activity in a substantive way.”

Who’s Next?

One thing still very much up in the air is who will be the next Newark superintendent who will lead whatever comes out of this effort. Gov. Chris Christie has told current school chief Clifford Janey that he won’t be rehired and asked Booker to advise him on who comes next in the state-run district.

Booker last week said that won’t be decided until after PENewark’s community campaign, slated to go for at least two months.

“I wanted to wait until the community has a chance to speak, and if we get too far ahead, that person won’t have the community’s support,” the mayor said.

“Let’s find out what the community’s values and ideas are, and even what should be the superintendent’s qualifications,” he said. “ And then we can bring in someone who meets the community’s desires.”

Superintendent Search

In Weequahic’s auditorium, the superintendent search was a prime concern. “Are we going to allow the mayor and governor to decide that?” said Lucious Jones, a parent advocate.

Still, there was hardly much focus on what this group would want to happen next, either. There was a smattering of suggestions around the curriculum, school uniforms and more vocational training.

A couple participants pointed out that Newark just went through a whole round of forums and meetings to devise Janey’s strategic plan for the schools, one that several advocates worried would now be scrapped by Booker’s campaign as not its own.

“I call it the tyranny of the new,” said Richard Cammarieri, a former Newark advisory board member who attended both the Weequahic meeting and Booker’s stakeholders meetings. “But if they really expect anything new out of this, it would be a surprise.”

Shavar Jeffries, president of the current Newark advisory board and a partner in the PENewark effort, agreed that there will need to be bridge building across the city. And he applauded at least the conversations that have begun.

“Any time we are engaging parents, it’s always a good thing,” he said. “But in the final analysis, it will be important to integrate all these conversations into a common vision on how we move forward.”