Fight Over Control of Newark Schools Takes Unexpected Turn

John Mooney | June 5, 2013 | Education
Cerf offers up fiscal controls in court, while holding onto key district functions

Maybe it was an olive branch or just a move to buy some time – or possibly both – but the Christie administration yesterday picked an unlikely place to provide at least a small respite in what has been a decade-long fight over the state’s control of Newark schools.

During oral arguments over a challenge to the state’s 18-year control of its largest school district, an assistant attorney general told the state appellate court panel in Newark that the administration was willing to begin talks on returning fiscal controls to the local school board.

Exactly what that means is unclear, given that the district would continue to be run by the state’s appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, and that the state would keep control of personnel and instructional programs.

What’s more, it would not be the first time the local school board has had a say in the budget process, as it previously voted on fiscal matters under the former state-appointed superintendent, Marion Bolden.

Still, yesterday’s statement in the courtroom surprised the handful of Newark school advocates and activists in attendance and, for the moment, blunted rising outcry over the state’s operation of the district under Anderson.

“Any movement is better than no movement, and lately we’ve only had no movement,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the local board’s chairwoman.

Baskerville-Richardson said she was waiting for specifics about what the state was offering. Assistant Attorney General Michael Walters said only that state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf would be sending a letter to the district asking to start talks about transitioning fiscal powers back to the local board.

Would it open the way for the board to rewrite Anderson’s controversial budget for next year, including plans for layoffs and the closing of at least two schools? The board, in a largely symbolic vote, rejected the budget this spring, and Baskerville-Richardson said she wasn’t so sure what powers the board might gain.

“It is wonderful to hear it in court, but I still haven’t heard it from the commissioner,” Baskerville-Richardson said. “There are decisions that can be made (on the budget] and we will certainly look at the possibility.”

The court hearing had to do with a challenge that the local board and others lodged against Cerf’s decision in 2011 to retain the state’s control of the district, despite its own evaluation indicating there had been enough gains to restore at least some local control.

The latest development also comes at a time when the state’s control of schools is becoming a contentious issue both in and outside Newark, providing a lightning rod for critics of Anderson and her plans, but also stoking opposition to the state’s separate plans to take over a fourth urban district, Camden.

The state Board of Education is set to give final approval to that takeover today, with at least a couple of busloads of advocates from Newark expected to attend to air their complaints.

At issue in court is the state’s evaluation system – the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) – that in 2011 gave Newark scores meeting the required minimums of 80 out of 100 in all categories but instructional programs.

At the time, Cerf maintained that while the district may have hit some benchmarks, it had not shown “sustained progress” warranting a return to local control. He cited examples of continued dysfunction in the district. He then conducted an interim QSAC review that substantially lowered the scores.

Yesterday, one judge on the three-judge panel questioned Walters about what constitutes progress and whether the local board was almost set up to fail, with the state providing no guidance at all to how to achieve the marks it requires.

“I can understand what you are saying, but what guidance is given to the district to help it understand what they need to do to make that sustained progress?” asked Judge Margaret Hayden.

While the state’s evaluation system uses precise number grades for dozens of different functions, Walters responded that there is no “exact number” the district must achieve to show progress.

“The commissioner has ongoing information coming to him,” Walters said. “But having a one-time score of over 80 certainly doesn’t meet that standard.”

Hayden then retorted by asking if it was the commissioner’s job to put in place the functions and systems that state now criticizes the Newark district for not having.

“Isn’t it the commissioner who is responsible to make sure that things are built into the institution?” she asked.