Foundation Overseeing Facebook Founder’s Gift Keeps Lower Profile

John Mooney | March 24, 2014 | Education
Three years later, while controversy swirls around proposed reforms, most of $200M to improve Newark’s schools remains unspent

Kimberly McLain heads the Foundation for Newark’s Future, founded to oversee $100 million donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to aid Newark's schools and to raise $100 million in matching funds.
It was launched with great fanfare more than three years ago, but the organization created out of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools has lately kept a low profile.

That’s not an easy task these days, as Newark’s state-appointed schools superintendent, Cami Anderson, has aggressively pushed to remake the district — and activists, advocates and others have been equally aggressive in pushing back against her reforms.

The Foundation for Newark’s Future, born out of Zuckerberg’s $100 million and charged with raising another $100 million match and then distributing the money, has so far been a quiet partner to Anderson while the public battles have raged over the superintendent’s plans.

After making a big investment in the district’s new teacher contract in the district a year ago, committing close to $50 million, the foundation has not announced any more big investments and has instead focused on smaller, more-popular ideas like early childhood and leadership grants.

But that may soon change, as the foundation’s latest chief executive said more news is on the way.

Chief executive Kimberly McLain took over the foundation in February 2013, moving up after serving as chief financial officer under Greg Taylor.

Interviewed last week at the foundation’s spartan offices in downtown Newark, McLain gave NJ Spotlight an update on the foundation’s progress since she took the helm. Details were as sparse as the offices, but McLain gave a sense it will be an eventful next few months.

“It’s been an interesting year, it’s been a good year,” McLain said of her term so far.

“We know it’s not an easy task, and changes don’t come overnight,” she said. “But we do hope the investments we are making are building blocks and stepping stones, if you will, to that day where all the children are getting the education they deserve.”

The closest goal closed to being finalized is attaining the $100 million match of Zuckerberg’s gift, something that has been long rumored but not confirmed.

“In terms of fundraising, we are in a very good place, and hope to make an announcement soon,” she said, adding the news would be that the full match has been achieved.

How soon that announcement will be made, McLain said, is out of her hands, with so many higher-profile people involved, including Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, two central players in the initial announcement of Zuckerberg’s gift.

“The (timing) is not just up to me,” she said with a smile. “We are working on it diligently.”

She put the latest amount spent at $81 million, a slight uptick from a year ago. And she said how the remaining money will be spent could be determined soon, too, with the bulk of it likely to go to the Newark Public School District as Anderson keeps pressing her reorganization plan, known as “One Newark.”

“Given where the vast majority of students are, we will continue to have a very strong alignment with Newark public schools, while we continue to be supportive of the charter sector,” she said.

More immediately, she said the fund will announce a $1 million initiative to bolster early childhood education focused on the very youngest children, even before they come to school.

“We’re really excited about that, and our goal is to unveil it next month,” McLain said.

As for other specifics, McLain was more circumspect.

“We have our priority areas, but the final decisions have not been made,” she said.

McLain said she fully recognized that “One Newark” has not exactly received a warm welcome from the most vocal factions in the city, with protests being organized almost every week lately by community organizations, as well as the unions representing teachers and principals.

“It is definitely a tough time,” she said. “What I believe, at the end of the day, there are a lot of people in this city who are passionate about education, and sometimes we disagree on the best way to get there.

“But I think in the end result, the goal is the same for everyone,” McLain continued. “And it is my hope that we can come together around the things we have in common, rather than continue to be divided by our differences.”

Asked whether the foundation explicitly supports Anderson’s strategies so far, McLain said it does, but she chose her words carefully.

“As a foundation, we are supportive of the superintendent’s vision for the city,” she said. “As a community, we need to figure out the best way to get to that goal. It is a very contentious time right now, and that presents distractions to our work. If we can work through our differences, we can get there faster.”

One thing McLain ruled out was the foundation helping Anderson close her looming budget gap — a reported $57 million this year and estimated $80 million next year. The fiscal 2015 budget is expected to be presented this week.

“As a foundation, we do not engage in gap funding,” she said. “That being said, part of the reasons we have such close alignment with NPS is because the district is broke and unable to do some of these other things themselves.”

McLain said whatever the choices, the foundation continues to follow a schedule to finish its work in the five years planned by Zuckerberg when he announced the fund in fall of 2010 — give or take a half-year.

“I do think in the 2015-16 school year that we will be wrapping up,” she said. “Obviously, if there’s a new influx of funding, we’d be happy to continue the work. But when we all came into this, we believed this would be a philanthropic shot in the arm and we’d do the work in a limited amount of time.”