Spotlight: Shavar Jeffries

John Mooney | April 27, 2011 | Education
Will the public face of the Newark school community -- and the perennial man in the middle -- still be in place after today's election?

Title: President, Newark Public Schools Advisory Board

Age: 36

Why he matters: Jeffries has been the most public face of the Newark school community as it has gone through a tumultuous few months in the aftermath of the $100 million gift announcement from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. During that time, the state that operates the district has launched a search for a new superintendent that is down to two finalists, and stirred up public protests about plans to consolidate district schools and expand charters in the city.

Why he may matter less soon: In trying to balance the Christie administration’s reform agenda and the community’s cry for local say, Jeffries has stepped on a few political toes, including those of his own board. Three seats on the board are up for vote today, and even Jeffries admits his days as president may be numbered.

No stranger to adversity: A native Newarker, Jeffries had a tough childhood, to say the least. His mother was murdered when he was 10, and he and his younger sister were raised by their grandmother, mostly in the South Ward. He won a scholarship to Seton Hall Preparatory School, went on to attend Duke University and then Columbia University Law School. “Since then I have been trying to give back for what I received,” he said.

Law career: Upon graduation, Jeffries served as law clerk to NAACP counsel-turned-federal judge Nathaniel Jones of the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati. After a stop in Washington, D.C., he came back to Newark — first as a fellow at Gibbons law firm and then as a professor at Seton Hall Law School. In 2008, he was named chief counsel to former state Attorney General Anne Milgram. He is now back at Seton Hall.

One case that hasn’t gone away: While at Gibbons, Jeffries was involved in the class-action suit against the Newark public schools over their special education policies and programs. That was 2001. The case remains pending.

The last year: Standing at the podium when the Zuckerberg gift was announced last fall, Jeffries was seen as an charismatic bridge between Gov. Chris Christie and his push to reform the schools and the community’s effort to have a prominent voice in the decisions. Jeffries had been elected to the board the spring before with a near-record turnout. But in what he described as a “baptism by fire,” the good will disappeared quickly this winter with the disclosure the state had consolidation plans in the works already. That left Jeffries caught in the middle, trying to make peace in what were increasingly contentious community meetings.

The last month: It got trickiest when the advisory board unexpectedly voted against the district’s plan to open new magnet high schools next year, much to Jeffries’ chagrin. He publicly blamed the decision in part on members he said were beholden to North Ward power broker Steve Adubato Sr., an accusation that drew immediate rebuke from Adubato and was viewed by some as political suicide.

He has not backed down much: “It has become increasingly clear to me why the children have not received the quality education they deserve is due to the politics in this city and the many people invested in the status quo.”

The day after: Today’s election includes three candidates on a ticket backed by Adubato. Although Jeffries ended up endorsing one of the three, few think his presidency will survive if the ticket wins. “We shall see,” he said. “But I didn’t run for this board to be its president, but to help the children.”

Family: His wife, Tenagne Girma Jeffries, is an accounts director for an advertising agency. They have two young children.