Newark School Board Meets in the Street

John Mooney | August 2, 2011 | Education
Despite last-minute cancellation of scheduled meeting, some board members gather to urge the state to relinquish control of Newark school district

Newark school board meetings are anything but predictable, but this may have been the first one held on a city sidewalk.

It may also have been the first time that five members of the board — a quorum– showed up for a meeting they knew had been canceled and held their own. But that’s exactly what happened outside the locked doors of Science Park High School, where the meeting had originally been scheduled.

The members of the ad hoc gathering vowed to press for an appeal of the Christie administration’s continued control of the district.

More than 50 other people — many of them city leaders and civic advocates — were on hand. But the board members in an impromptu press conference said their main intent was to push the entire board to fully and formally consider an appeal within the next two weeks.

“The five of us are all on the same page. We strongly believe in the re-enfranchisement of the parents of Newark,” said Shavar Jeffries, a board member who has led the effort.

“We are confident we can work with the [board’s] chair,” he said, “and have a meeting so we can consider this as a whole and hopefully move forward as a united whole of the board and of the city.”

Special Session

The board had been slated to meet in a special session to consider a resolution that would have endorsed “whatever legal action is necessary” to contest a recent decision by acting state education commissioner Chris Cerf to retain full state control of the district.

But despite calling the meeting on Friday, board chair Eliana Pintor-Marin cancelled the meeting on Monday without giving a reason.

A spokesman for the district initially said it was cancelled after panelists invited to discuss the takeover could not attend. But NJ Spotlight contacted two of the three — former state Sen. Gordon MacInnes and former Newark Public Schools chief of staff Bessie White –and both said they had planned to attend until notified of the cancellation.

Spokesperson Valerie Merritt then said Marin would have no further comment. Efforts to reach Pintor-Marin were unsuccessful.

This latest controversy in the city’s largest school district was sparked off by a letter from Cerf. He indicated that although Newark had scored well in four out of five categories used by the state to monitor schools, the Christie administration would retain full control of the district for at least the next three years. The reasons he gave were continued low student achievement and a lack of “sustained and substantial progress” in the district as a whole.

That’s what led to yesterday’s scheduled meeting, with Jeffries among several city leaders quietly strategizing as to how they would appeal the decision. And by several accounts, it appeared most, if not all, of the advisory board was in support of at least some legal action.

But then came the sudden cancellation early Monday, with rumors swirling as to who got to whom.

No Comment

A spokesman for Cerf said he would have no further comment beyond his formal letter to the district, and some of the city’s most prominent leaders also weren’t talking. Several efforts to contact North Ward political leader Steve Adubato Sr., who has maybe the biggest influence on the board, were unsuccessful.

Jeffries and other board members last night weren’t pointing fingers, and Jeffries himself said he hoped it was “just a mix-up.’

Board member Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson wore boxing gloves to the gathering, but had little to say. “What are other people’s reasons and agendas, we can’t answer for that.”

The highest-ranking member in attendance, vice chairperson Shanique Davis- Speight, barely spoke at all. When asked whether she had even talked with Marin about the cancellation, she said, “No comment.”

The other board members attending were Alturrick Kenney and Marques-Aquil Lewis.

The next steps appear to be scheduling a formal meeting to be attended by the full board. Jeffries said they were aiming for August 12. He said the board must file the appeal by August 14, or 30 days after Cerf’s letter.

In the meantime, the informal meeting at the corner of Norfolk and West Market Street went on well past an hour into dusk, as people aired their views.

Also in attendance were Newark Council President Donald Payne Jr., noted political operative Carl Sharif, state NAACP leader James Harris, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) and civil rights leader and poet Amiri Baraka.

“Talk about democracy in action,” said Richard Cammarieri, a former board member who was among those who also showed up. “Just like ancient Greece, the populace speaks.”

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story misspelled several names of individuals included. The reporter regrets the errors.