Cooperation, Not Strife, Marks Talks on Control of Newark Schools

John Mooney | December 11, 2013 | Education
While teachers and officials squabble, state prepares quietly to return some fiscal power to local board

Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, president of the Newark school district's local advisory board.
While there has been much rancor of late between Newark’s school administration and its teachers union, quieter talks about state control of the district are proving more fruitful.

Negotiations may be nearing completion between the Christie administration, its appointed leadership in the school district and the local advisory board over returning at least some controls to the local board after nearly 20 years of state operation of New Jersey’s largest school system.

Facing a legal challenge, the Christie administration announced in court earlier this year that it would be willing to return fiscal controls to the local board, while steadfastly holding on to the main levers for operating the district, including the appointment of its leadership.

Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, president of the local board and its point person in the talks, said this week that she expects a final agreement returning financial controls to the local board within a month.

Richardson said she has met three times at the state’s offices in downtown Newark for talks with representatives of the state Department of Education and with state-appointed schools Superintendent Cami Anderson.

“We’re hopefully coming down to the final stages,” Baskerville-Richardson said. “It’s maybe not as quickly as we want, but there has not been anything intentional in delaying it. It has been cooperative.”

The board president stressed that the state would still maintain central controls, including veto power over the board, even on financial matters. The negotiations are only about returning certain budget controls, with the state retaining overall governance.

But Baskerville-Richardson said the talks over even that limited concession have been productive, and the result will be a significant step toward returning local control.

“Without governance controls, (Anderson) still has the right to veto everything,” said Baskerville-Richardson.

“But what we are looking for is full participation in the budget process, full participation in the planning,” she said. ‘”We are basically looking for what every other board of education has.”

She said it may seem a small step, but for a board that has contended that it has been left out of the process, small steps are significant. This is the same local board that unanimously took a vote of “no confidence” against Anderson last spring.

Baskerville-Richardson’s comments this week came as she prepared to speak at a rally led in part by the Newark Teachers Union, which has been openly battling with the administration.

But the back-and-forth over the state’s control has been a pervasive and contentious issue in the district, too, and it could prove far more critical to the school system’s future.

For one, the district is about to faced some big budget decisions, with Anderson slated in the next couple of months to propose a 2014 budget that many in the community are expecting will include some tough cuts and school closures.

Anderson has so far not commented on her plans, but Baskerville-Richardson said just having the board included in the budget deliberations would be progress.

“Access to information early in the game, that is really important,” said Baskerville- Richardson. ‘We’ll be voting on expenditures before the checks are cut, rather than after.”

The Christie administration was not providing much detail about the talks, but state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said yesterday that he, too, was pleased with the negotiations so far.

“I have greatly appreciated the positive and collaborative nature of the discussions,” Cerf said in an email.

Cerf’s chief of operations, Susana Guerrero, has been the administration’s lead person in the talks, according to Baskerville-Richardson. She said Newark business administrator Valerie Wilson and Charlotte Hitchcock, Anderson’s chief of staff, have represented the district.