The Search Is on for Newark’s Next Super

John Mooney | March 18, 2011 | Education
An ad hoc group of city and school leaders begins to review candidates for Newark school superintendent

Christie point
On the same day Gov. Chris Christie came to a local Newark school to publicly promote his agenda for New Jersey’s largest district, an ad hoc group of noted city and school leaders met more quietly yesterday to begin reviewing the administration’s candidates to lead the embattled system.

The loosely formed group — about 18-20 members in all — is led by Clement Price, the Rutgers history professor and respected community leader.

It has met three times so far, and more meetings are slated for this weekend. Christie said a decision on a new superintendent of the state-run district would be made by May.

The ad hoc group’s meeting at Prudential offices yesterday was the first with someone from the administration’s short list of about a half-dozen candidates, one of its members said. Members have pledged not to divulge any candidates’ names as yet.

Still, how much influence the group will have in the final choice remains uncertain, with the community’s role being a big point of contention of late.

The group was pulled together in the last several weeks amid newly sparked tensions in the city over the state’s operation of the district. Specifically at issue has been how Christie’s new education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has been proceeding with the search and overseeing the schools in general, with claims that he is intent on closing traditional schools and expanding charter schools.

“If he’s asking for our advice,” Price said of Cerf yesterday, “I would think he is taking it very seriously.”

Of the local group, “these are quality people, independent-minded people,” Price said. “In Newark, it is very important that [Cerf] have the opportunity to seek and rely on the advice of people who have done the work.”

Yesterday, Christie and Cerf came to Ann Street School in the Ironbound, one of the district’s highest-performing schools and where Christie’s own father attended elementary school in late 1930’s and 1940’s.

Christie also clearly wanted to put on a public display of reaching out to the city’s various factions at a critical time in his efforts to overhaul the district, starting with the superintendent search. He said he wanted a new leader in place before the end of the school year.

“The final stage in the process is about to start,” Christie said.

He repeated that the ultimate decision of the next superintendent would rest with Cerf, but that the task force and other notable Newarkers would be part of the process, including Mayor Cory Booker. Booker’s role has faced persistent questions when, by law, he has no formal powers over the schools.

“The mayor is my partner in bringing change to Newark’s school system, and will be playing an advisory role,” Christie said yesterday.

The governor also said he has also spoken in the last month with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who’s famous pledge last fall to contribute $100 million to reform efforts put a national spotlight on the district.

Christie said they did not talk about specific superintendent candidates, but said the Facebook founder was satisfied with the steps being taken so far.

Matching Funds

The governor also updated that Booker’s own fundraising had collected about $50 million toward the effort. Zuckerberg’s full gift, over five years, is contingent on a matching $100 million raised by the mayor and others.

“We’re both pleased with the state of the fundraising and what is happening,” Christie said.

As Christie was speaking, the ad hoc group was also gathering at Prudential’s downtown offices. It is a diverse mix of interests, to say the least, drawn from long-time activists and advocates, academia and foundations, and legislators and other political leaders.

Among the members are Junius Williams and Wilhemina Holder, two long-time civic leaders who previously had been so critical of the state’s process that they had formed their own coalition to counter Booker and Cerf.

Also included are Ray Ocasio of the non-profit La Casa de Don Pedro, state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), former school advisory board member Richard Cammarieri, and Newark Charter School Fund director Mashea Ashton.

Also reviewing candidates will be the local school advisory board, led by president Shavar Jeffries, as well as some members of the Newark City Council.

Holder said yesterday that she was hesitant to join the new group but decided it was better to be part of the discussion.

“I had my second thoughts, but I thought important that the voice of the community be in there,” she said. “I’m comfortable with the people in there. And Clem [Price] will make sure that it is something the citizens respect.”

Interestingly, many of the same people also led a search committee three years ago that helped select former superintendent Clifford Janey, who Christie is now replacing. Price also headed that group, and Holder and Williams served on it.