Newark’s Interim Super, Calming the Waters During a Troubled Time

Deborah Terrell insists she's an interim appointee, but others may have different ideas

Deborah Terrell, a veteran Newark teacher, principal and administrator, stepped into a job that wasn’t for the faint of heart. And her first month as interim superintendent of Newark Public Schools made the word “transition” an understatement.

Terrell has seen the district through a time of tumult, sparked off by a leaked reorganization plan that could lead to the closing or consolidation of more than a dozen schools. Her steady, calming presence has led some to suggest that she has the makings of more than an interim super.

Here’s the backstory:

Not hiding his aims to overhaul the district, Gov. Chris Christie had told former superintendent Clifford Janey that he wouldn’t be rehired, and his administration launched a nationwide search for a new leader. Mayor Cory Booker has played a prominent public role, too, as has the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Amid all that, Terrell said she was asked to help steady the district for the short haul, with assistant commissioner Rochelle Hendricks also serving as the state’s point person.

Four days into the job, Terrell she said she was handed a working draft of the reorganization plan. Before she could announce the proposal, she said, the draft was leaked to the press. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well.

Damage Control

Just shy of her one-month mark, Terrell on Saturday stood in the elementary school auditorium with acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to take the public’s heat, defending the report as only a working draft and in the end diffusing much of the tension in the crowd of about 400.

She later called it “damage control.”

“I think the community needs to be healed,” Terrell said yesterday. “I think it feels disenfranchised and lacking a sense of belonging.”

“My question to them is where do we go from here,” she continued.

Her leadership through the tumult has left some in the city talking about Terrell as a potential candidate for the long-term job, and her well-known alliance with North Ward power broker Stephen Adubato hasn’t tempered the talk.

Still, while Terrell doesn’t dismiss the idea — and even encourages it — she also acknowledged yesterday that she’s not a candidate that she knows of. Cerf at the same meeting on Saturday said he had met with eight people for the job and was still looking for others.

Cerf said he hopes a decision to be made by April 1, only three weeks away. Terrell said she has not been approached.

“It was clear to me that I was named as an interim, and I have accepted that I have a job to do,” she said yesterday.

An Intriguing Figure

Still, she has made for an intriguing figure in the meantime, bringing a track record and credibility to the post. She is the former principal of the Harriet Tubman Elementary School and vice principal of the Ann Street School, both winning national Blue Ribbon School awards in her tenure.

The story goes that her work at Tubman won the admiration of Adubato, who drove up to the school one day a couple of years ago and introduced himself. Adubato is head of the city’s North Ward Center and founder of the Robert Treat Academy Charter School, a school that Christie has visited and held up as a model of excellence.

And Adubato, a powerful force in the city’s political scene, is not one to hide his admiration, so he erected two billboards in the city touting Tubman and Robert Treat as representing the best of Newark schools. Together, they launched a partnership of charter and traditional school principals.

“She’s a Newark person, born and raised in the East Ward,” Adubato said last night, before discussing her resume in the East and Central wards and how she now lives in the West Ward.

“She has the real soul of Newark, she understands the nuance,” he said.

What about being the next superintendent? Adubato wouldn’t say last night: “No matter where she is, she helps the kids of Newark.”

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