Profile: She’s the Point Person in Battle Over State Control of Newark Schools

John Mooney | February 12, 2014 | Education, Profiles
As chair of the local advisory board, Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson is no stranger to struggle

Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson
Who she is: Baskerville-Richardson is the chairperson of the Newark School Advisory Board, the board that serves as the public voice of the community — which has been a pretty raucous one lately.

Why she matters: First elected to the school board in 2011 and a former teacher in the district, Baskerville-Richardson rose to the presidency in 2012 and has served as an indicator of how Newark is starting to fight back against the state’s 20-year control — specifically the policies of its state-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson.

Her own evolution: After a quiet first year on the board, Baskerville-Richardson has become increasingly outspoken as its president, opening the last two meetings of the advisory board with lengthy statements against Anderson and the state’s control.

Unapologetic about the meetings: The board meetings have evolved into infamously intense protests against Anderson and her reform plans for the city, which include closing and consolidating schools. The last one in January was as heated as any, with a barrage of criticism ultimately prompting Anderson to leave the stage. Baskerville-Richardson contends the opposition comes from what she says is Anderson’s unwillingness to work with the community in developing her plans.

“There is nothing new about this — whenever people are pushed into a corner, they react,” Baskerville-Richardson said of the restive crowds. “Cami has been very aggressive in her policies. If people didn’t react, I would think there was something wrong . . . As raucous as they are described, I will put it this way, people are angry.”

Just a few activists making all the noise? “There is definitely a consistent core of activists, but Cami’s actions have caused people to get involved from every aspect of the city,” she said.

Upbringing: Baskerville-Richardson was born and raised in Newark, the oldest of four children and the daughter of Solomon and Gladys Grauer, a community and labor activist and his educator wife. Her mother, who still lives in the Weequahic section of the city, is also a prominent artist and opened the city’s first art gallery near the corner of Bergen and Lyons Avenue in 1972. Baskerville-Richardson graduated from Weequahic High in 1970, in the aftermath of the city’s riots in 1967, and said she saw the school go from predominantly Jewish to one with fewer than a dozen Jewish students by the time she left.

History repeats itself: ”I really see a lot of the issues facing the city now as those I saw as a child. The system then was not ready for the migration [of blacks] from the South, and I think we are still dealing with the inability to make the necessary changes.”

Barringer teacher: A teacher for more than 30 years, Baskerville-Richardson may be best known as the theater teacher for Barringer High School at a time that the school put out on lavish and expensive productions, filling the auditorium for each performance. The productions waned in popularity as budget cuts hit, and Baskerville-Richardson went on to lead the school’s dinner theater productions. She also taught creative writing and led the school’s Speech Team, before moving to be coordinator of the Marion Bolden Center until her retirement in 2008.

Favorite theatrical moment: The school put on any number of shows, but when asked her favorite, Baskerville-Richardson remembered one production of “Raisin” in the 1970s in which two visually impaired students were in the chorus and their classmates helped them through the show.

Labor voice herself: Following her father’s footsteps, Baskerville-Richardson also served as a legislative representative and vice president in the Newark Teachers Union, the latter during the first years of the state’s takeover. “People were unsure of what the future would be,” she said of that time.

Children First slate: Baskerville-Richardson ran in 2011 on the campaign slate backed by City Councilman and current mayoral candidate Ras Baraka, sweeping to her post over candidates backed by North Ward leader Steve Adubato and flipping the balance of power of the board.

What’s next: Baskerville-Richardson is leaving the board this spring and running for the at-large seat on the city council. “I am very torn about leaving the board, but particularly with Ras Baraka coming off the council, I feel there is a need for an education advocate,” she said.

In the meantime: She’s not gone yet, and said the board would continue to speak out and the community surely would, too. “I don’t want to predict, but I see a unity I haven’t seen since the 1980s,” she said.

Married with children: Baskerville-Richardson lives in the Weequahic section with her husband Wayne Richardson, a union official with the Laborers’ International Union Local 55. Their children are all grown.

Free time? Baskerville-Richardson is working part-time as project director of Stand and Deliver, the afterschool program. But there isn’t much free time these days, she says, with her work on the board and the coming campaign. ”It’s exhausting, but in terms of the Newark community, this is a good time for it,” she said. “People’s consciousness level about education is really advancing. This is a pivotal time for education in the city.”