Facebook Foundation Turns Corner with Contribution to Newark Contract

On eve of agreement, head of Foundation for Newark's Future talks about organization’s work so far

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The Foundation for Newark’s Future, the organization created to distribute Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark schools, hasn’t exactly set the world ablaze.

Slow and methodical may be the best way to characterize its two-year ramp-up. And while it has committed $16 million to worthy projects — such as grants to new schools and teachers — none were exactly headline-grabbing.

All that just changed.

The centerpiece of the new five-year contract between the state-run district and the Newark Teachers Union is the provision that directly ties teacher raises to positive evaluations each year — with bonuses of up to $12,500 awarded to exemplary teachers working in the toughest schools and fields.

The foundation will be paying those bonuses, as well as other personnel costs. Although an exact amount has not yet been revealed, district officials say it could reach $50 million.

Nothing is set in stone at this point. The contract still needs to be approved by the union’s rank and file, who are slated to vote next week. Until then, FNF officials have said they do not want to speak publicly about the agreement or their contribution to it.

But in an interview earlier this month, while the deal was being hammered out, FNF chief executive Greg Taylor sat down with NJ Spotlight. He gave some hints about the foundation’s thinking and talked about the pace of its work so far, characterizing it as a systematic and “not a race.”

Question: The Zuckerberg gift requires a full match, and at two years you have raised only about half the match. Are you on track to reach the full amount?

Answer: I am confident that we will raise the full match. Every day we are working hard toward it, we really are, and my attitude is it’s over the length of time of the organization. We started in September 2010, and over the lifetime of the organization, we will continue to fundraise. But I’m very optimistic we’ll get there.

Q: Beyond the contract, what is on the horizon for the FNF?

A: We are really looking to work and partner with the superintendent [Cami Anderson] in how to provide high-quality professional development for teachers. This is clearly her wheelhouse; she has a very aggressive and strong plan that we’re excited to be part of.

Q: Do you see your investments more geared to system-wide investments than to individual schools or programs?

A: We do think it is important to keep a systems focus, a district-wide focus. That does not mean there aren’t individual programs that we’ll invest in, but it is those that are dramatically improving how the system operates. The manner in which teachers are trained and supported, the manner in which a network of schools redesign themselves, how principals are trained and placed, those are system investments, as opposed to individual, programmatic ones.

Q: What’s the status with charter school investments and your earlier plans to make a large contribution to the Newark Charter School Fund, an umbrella organization for supporting the charters in the city?

A: We are working in partnership with Charter Fund, and we are still working out what that partnership looks like. It is premature to talk about what any revenue looks like at this point in time.

Q: You still face the criticism that the foundation’s work has taken too long to make an impact. How do you address that?

A: I deeply respect where the depth of the need and urgency in this community and the resources that we have to steward. I deeply respect the concern as to how quickly these dollars are being invested in the community.

But it is not a race, and we are very optimistic for a number of investments we have on the horizon that will have transformational change in this community. We are very optimistic what we are working toward will have lasting change over time, and we want to make sure those large investments are well researched, well reasoned, and that takes some time.

But I do want to respect the sentiment that says the need is now in this community, and how are you responding to it? I share that sentiment.

Q: Do you fear losing the community’s support?

A: We are very excited about the recently established community advisory board, they have some of the most important leaders in the community, and they have expressed these sentiments. But I don’t fear losing the community. I think they are a very good representation of what’s going on.

Q: But didn’t that take two years to create?

A: It’s about pulling together a slate of leaders who really represent the broad needs of the community, and that network will prove very valuable as we move forward in regards to understanding community needs, the history of this community, and what’s happening in terms of investment possibilities we can make. The community advisory board will be central to all of that.

Q: How’s your relationship with the district and superintendent Anderson?

A: We have a very strong relationship with the district, as with many of our partners. A good, strong relationship doesn’t mean we don’t debate the issues and we don’t have rigorous dialogue as we have meetings of the minds about strategies and directions we are going. But absolutely, we are fundamentally supportive of the superintendent’s leadership.

Q: Would Anderson say the same?

A: I do think she would say the same.

The resources we have, the need is great, and I know that part of the challenge is how do we move and invest these resources at the speed of life, if you will, is a concern that a lot of folks have.

I’m sure if the superintendent had her way, this would be a quicker investment. But part of the reason why you are partners with someone is you can respectfully disagree and you can have exchange at the strategy side.

But at the headline level, at the goal level, and I would argue at much of the execution level, we are absolutely supportive of the direction of the district and that these resources have been well invested at this point.

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