The Christie administration’s role in the state’s larger urban districts like Newark and Camden has been well-chronicled, but its aggressive intervention in a smaller district like Perth Amboy is becoming just as controversial.
Yesterday, the state Department of Education reinstated for a second time the superintendent of Perth Amboy schools, Janine Caffrey, counter to the ruling of an administrative law judge who had upheld her suspension by the local board.
The reinstatement by assistant commissioner Bari Erlichson was not a final decision, with state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf still to make a ruling on the judge’s recommendation in the next month.
Final or not, the decision set off another tempest in the Middlesex County district of 11,000 students and nearly 1,000 teachers, with the teachers union president last night pushing back against what she called the state’s destabilizing move and the equivalent of a state takeover.
“The district is in chaos,” said Donna Chiera, president of the Perth Amboy Federation and also president of the statewide American Federation of Teachers. “People are hesitant to even get involved. Nobody knows who is in charge.”
Who controls the Perth Amboy schools has been a murky issue for a while, with charges of corruption at the municipal level, dysfunction at the district level, and a fall municipal and school election that may incorporate the worst of both.
Caffrey has been her own lightning rod, outspoken in her wishes to reform the system and especially bring more accountability to the teaching corps through a revamp of the state’s tenure system. Many of those changes were put in place by the new tenure law enacted this summer, but with his own pro-reform positions, Cerf has not hidden his admiration for what Caffrey is trying to do.
Still, Caffrey has clearly ruffled some feathers, first being fired outright by the local school board last May, only to see Cerf reinstate her on technical grounds. Then, the board sought to put her on administrative leave for the rest of her contract, a move also challenged to the commissioner.
In early September, an administrative law judge ruled in the local board’s favor, saying they had followed proper procedure, albeit under unusual circumstances. Just four members of the nine-member board initially voted on the action, the rest abstaining due to conflicts of interest because of relatives employed in the district.
Erlichson yesterday wrote the board that for the time being Caffrey would keep her job while Cerf weighs the merits of the case. She called the suspension “premature” because of Cerf’s pending decision. The commissioner and his staff would not comment further. Efforts to reach board leaders or Caffrey were also unsuccessful.
But Chiera wasn’t holding back last night, saying she would seek a meeting with Cerf but that the teachers themselves may have to take a stand. The union president said she had previously had a good relationship with Caffrey, but acknowledged there was little love lost now that Caffrey had been publicly criticizing teachers in the district.
“I feel a lot of this has become political, and she clearly has some political views the same as the administration,” Chiera said.
“I’m not talking walkouts or strikes or anything, but there may be some boycotts after school, things like that,” she said. “It feels like there is a divorce going on, and the staff are the kids.”