Legislative Panel Hears Critics of ‘One Newark’ Blueprint for Schools

John Mooney | March 12, 2014 | Education
State education officials and embattled superintendent decline invitations to testify about controversial plan

It proved to be a quieter setting for debate over Newark’s controversial school reorganization plan – but it was not any less contentious.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools yesterday hosted a Statehouse hearing on the plan known as “One Newark,” which calls for closing or consolidating a half-dozen city schools next year and the potential layoffs of up to 1,000 teachers in three years.

The hearing in Trenton was far less raucous than public forums on the “One Newark” plan that have been held in Newark over the last several months. Hundreds of activists and others have turned out to express strong opposition to the blueprint for the city’s schools, which are run by the state. Yesterday, no more than a few dozen people were on hand.

Nonetheless, the politics were clear, as the hearing turned out to be pretty one-sided affair against the “One Newark” plan, as both state Department of Education representatives and the state-appointed superintendent of Newark’s schools, Cami Anderson, declined invitations to attend.

Instead, the only testimony came from those opposed to the Anderson’s plan, including the Newark Teachers Union and the state’s largest teachers union, the NJEA, which called Anderson’s plan for layoffs a potential harbinger for school districts statewide.

The committee’s longstanding co-chair, state Sen. Ronald Rice Sr. (D-Essex), said the panel hoped Christie administration officials and Anderson would attend future hearings.

Who was invited and who deferred was its own topic of discussion. The state Department of Education staff declined, Rice said, due to the imminent change of leadership from outgoing state commissioner Chris Cerf to his appointed successor, David Hespe.

Newark’s response was more complicated. The committee contended its invitation was sent three weeks ago, with no response. But Anderson’s staff said she already had a previous engagement at a conference on early childhood education.

Anderson’s spokesman, Matthew Frankel, yesterday stood by the explanation, but also called the makeup of the witnesses “suspect” and clearly stacked against Anderson.

Rice said afterward that he hoped the crossed signals would be sorted out for future hearings, of which he said there would be several.

“We’ll invite Cami again, and we’ll hope she comes,” he said.

He acknowledged the witnesses yesterday were mostly people and groups critical of “One Newark,” in large part because they are the ones raising concerns.

“That’s why we had wanted her to come before the committee,” he said of Anderson.

The testimony was, nonetheless, hardly brief. Among those speaking was Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the president of the local advisory committee that has been clashing with Anderson, and the officers of the Newark Teachers Union, which has protested the layoff plans.

Baskerville-Richardson called for the committee to press the Christie administration to remove Anderson, but that’s a power the committee does not hold.

But there did appear some sentiment on the panel to at least press the administration to be more forthcoming. A motion was presented to ask the full Legislature to grant the committee subpoena power to compel Anderson to testify, more a symbolic act than legal one.

The committee balked at a final vote on the motion until its full membership could be on hand, but even Republicans said they wished the Christie administration and Anderson were more transparent.

“This is a story we hear so often,” said state Assemblyman David Wolfe, (R-Ocean) of the administration’s failure to come before the committee. “This is not only very frustrating, but an affront to us as legislators.”

‘There is a reason when we ask people to come before us,” he said. “We want answers.”