Newark School Board Votes to Fight State Control of Schools

John Mooney | August 12, 2011 | Education
Acting commissioner Chris Cerf extends olive branch, willing to discuss "orderly transition"

It took an extra week, but Newark’s school board last night finally met and voted unanimously to formally contest the state’s ongoing control of its schools.

Yet almost at the same time, New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, extended an olive branch and said in an interview that he would be willing to sit with the board to discuss the ongoing tensions and the ultimate possibility of what he called an “orderly transition.”

Bottom line: stay tuned.

The evening began with the board convening to act on a resolution to contest Cerf’s decision in July to maintain the state’s 15-year control of the district, despite signs of progress as determined by the state’s own monitoring system.

The resolution demanded that Cerf reconsider, or the board would take “whatever legal action is necessary to ensure that local control is returned, as prescribed by law.”

The board had been slated to meet on the resolution last week, but the session was canceled suddenly without much explanation. Five of the board’s nine members still showed up at Science Park High School, holding an impromptu session on the sidewalk outside.

There was less drama to the meeting last night. Board members gave short speeches before all nine members voted for the resolution, to the applause of a few dozen people in the audience.

“The takeover framework is highly offensive to the 280,000 people of Newark,” said Shavar Jeffries, the board member who led the campaign to contest the takeover.

The board met afterward in closed session to discuss legal strategy, and board chairwoman Eliana Pintor Marin said that it would start with a formal appeal letter to the State Board of Education.

Not certain of the state board’s precise role at this point, she said the next step would likely be a formal complaint to state appellate court contesting the New Jersey Department of Education’s process for denying at least some return of local control.

Then came the response from Cerf. Only a few minutes before, Cerf in a telephone interview appeared to try to head off any protracted confrontation. He said he stood by his call to maintain full control, calling it a “very, very straightforward decision for me,” based on what he has called Newark’s continued and severe lags in student achievement and high school completion.

But he also started to hedge: “That said, there are lots of appropriate values at work here — values of democratic and local control — that need to be honored and respected. But there are also the values of what’s in the best interest of Newark’s children. We are approaching a point where those values intersect, but we’re not there yet.”

And then came the offering: “I am more than happy to engage with the board and discuss things around timing and orderly transition, so we can work together toward a responsible outcome.”

Of course, how all this will play out is yet to be determined. Jeffries said afterward that he appreciated the response, but only to a point.

“We respect the commissioner and appreciate his willingness to sit down and talk,” he said. “But, almost 20 years into takeover, we seek a binding resolution that restores democracy to Newark’s parents. Democratic support for reform, ultimately, is the only way of sustaining any meaningful school improvement.”

Marin said Cerf had reached out to her personally as well, and she would take him up on his invitation. “If he’s going to talk with us, that’s great,” she said.

But she also said the message from Cerf and Gov. Chris Christie has been unbending up to that point, and the board needed to proceed with its challenge as well. “Maybe it took us doing this to hear back from him,” she said.