Top Democrat Joins Debate Over Outside Money in DOE

John Mooney | July 19, 2012 | Education
One of Senator Weinberg's goals, who's paying for what at the Department of Education

Credit: Amanda Brown
Sen. Loretta Weinberg
It’s not a typical request from a ranking legislator, but state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) doesn’t always follow the beaten path.

Last week, Weinberg announced in a press release that she had filed an Open Public Records Act request to the Christie administration for information on a now-familiar topic: who’s paying for what jobs in the state Department of Education.

The request was largely a repeat of an OPRA request made by one of the administration’s prime antagonists, the Education Law Center of Newark, Weinberg said, and it appeared to raise few new lines of inquiry.

But for Weinberg to jump into the debate was notable. She is the Senate Majority Leader, the second highest post in the Senate, and also a prominent member of the Senate judiciary committee that could be soon taking up acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s confirmation, a confirmation that has been stalled for more than a year.

“It certainly could become part of what we discuss with him,” Weinberg said yesterday.

Since his appointment by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011, Cerf has faced questions about his and the department’s relationships to, specifically, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles-based organization known for its focus on business- and data-driven strategies to school reform and its support for charter schools.

A former New York City deputy schools chancellor, Cerf is himself a graduate of the Broad Foundation’s leadership program, as are two of his top assistant commissioners and the newly named superintendent in the state-controlled district of Jersey City.

This week, Weinberg maintained she was making the request for further details about those relationships in the name of transparency and also accountability for what money is being spent where.

“Obviously, if we have people funded by private corporations or foundations working in public departments, we have a responsibility to ask why,” she said yesterday.

Cerf himself does not hide his frustrations about the repeated questions concerning Broad, and yesterday contended that he has been open about the jobs that have been funded through the foundation.

He said the specific Broad-funded positions, including a former assistant and two mid-level Broad fellows, have been disclosed in previous testimony to the Legislature. The department also recently accepted a $430,000 grant from Broad to help train its school turnaround staff and expand its charter school oversight. That grant was approved by the State Board of Education.

Cerf said the department would comply with Weinberg’s request as well. “I’m all for transparency, and that’s what we have been,” he said.

The OPRA request also seeks information about the relationship with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Cerf said there is no funding coming to the department from that foundation whatsoever. “Not a nickel,” he said.

Still, Weinberg cited what she said was a largely unanswered OPRA request from the Education Law Center that she said spurred her own request. Weinberg said she was nonetheless confident the department would be forthcoming with her, adding that she and Cerf had already spoken and planned to meet in the next week.

And she hinted Cerf could be coming before the judiciary committee in the near future, although she stressed that had yet to be confirmed. Efforts yesterday to reach the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) were unsuccessful.

“The OPRA is just a bit more formal way to do it than usual,” Weinberg said of the request. “Can we try to get this information in other ways, yes, but this has always been a particular interest.”

“I’m not making any accusations, not saying any of this has been good or bad or inappropriate,” she said. “We’ll just see what comes out of it.”

Editor’s note: The initial version of this story incorrectly reported that Newark and Jersey City superintendents had gone through the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s school leadership program. Newark superintendent Cami Anderson did not attend the program.