Filling the Top Slot for Newark’s Troubled Schools

One day after Newark's superintendent stepped down, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf starts talking about the future

With the latest Newark school superintendent out the door on Friday, the Christie administration and Newark Mayor Cory Booker are moving quickly to select the next superintendent and set their agenda for state’s largest district.

Booker and acting state education commissioner Chris Cerf took to the stump Saturday, a day after outgoing superintendent Clifford Janey’s last day, and met with local leaders to make their case and lay out a timetable for selecting a new superintendent by March or April.

It will be a tall task for the next superintendent, with Cerf describing a dysfunctional school system that needs “transformative change.”

Early Screening

Cerf said this weekend that he and Booker have begun interviews of candidates, so far with about eight individuals in what he called an “early screening.” A national search firm is involved with the process, and members of the district’s elected advisory board have also joined in two of the interviews.

Cerf wasn’t naming names of potential candidates, but said he was soliciting suggestions from throughout the “education reform community.”

All in all, the pieces are falling into place for what Cerf and Booker have promised would be some big changes in the 40,000-student district.

Much of the attention has been on the $100 million gift to the Newark public schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but the selection of the new superintendent is likely the more critical decision in what happens with that money and beyond.

But there are some huge challenges in the offing for that next superintendent, led by contract talks with the district’s teachers that have been at an impasse for months.

Auditing the Situation

In the local meetings on Saturday, Booker and Cerf laid out what they called the depth of problems in the district. Cerf presented an “audit” of the district that he said charted languishing student achievement, low graduation rates, dysfunctional personnel policies and top-heavy spending.

“Given the statistics showing the abject failure of the system, we cannot afford to be incremental and must look to truly transformative change, Cerf said in an interview yesterday.

He especially cited the statistic that just one in five ninth graders graduates four years later after having passed the state’s standardized proficiency test. The overall graduation rate is closer to 50 percent, he said, but most of those need an alternative exam.

“We are consigning generation after generation to not having access to the American dream,” Cerf said.

The remedies aren’t so easy, though. The audit laid out a variety of obstacles in a budget that sees twice as many administrators as the state average, and personnel policies that give principals little say over their own staffs.

Shutting Down Schools

Cerf also did not hide his own support for totally overhauling the lowest-performing schools, essentially closing and reopening them with new staffs. It was a practice that he led in New York City schools, where he was deputy chancellor and close adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“That’s my bias,” he said of the controversial strategy. “The research shows it is extremely difficult to turn around a school, rather than phasing it out and starting anew to build a new culture.”

Shavar Jeffries, the president of the district’s advisory board, said he was “cautiously optimistic” for the process that lay ahead. He said Cerf and Booker so far have involved the board and promised that it would play a prominent role in the selection of the next superintendent.

“The word we’re given is the full board will have a chance to weigh in before the next superintendent is chosen,” Jeffries said.

Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), said his union has also been waiting for the new leadership to fall into place.

The talks have been at an official impasse for several months, after the administration first proposed a pay freeze for the NTU’s members, Del Grosso said. That has led to a state mediator joining the talks, although Del Grosso said little new substantive progress has been made.

“I should be meeting soon with the commissioner,” said Del Grosso. “Hopefully we can move this forward.”