Mayoral Rivals Find Common Foe in State Control of Newark Schools

John Mooney | April 16, 2014 | Education
Both candidates promise to pose challenges for state’s new education commissioner

Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka
Even though they hold no legal authority over the public schools, Newark’s mayors through the years have never been shy about expressing their views – and exerting their considerable influence – over the state’s largest school district.

This spring’s contentious race between mayoral candidates Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries is proving to be no exception, with the state of the schools at the center of the campaign in many ways.

Baraka, a city councilman and principal of the city’s Central High School, has drawn some of his biggest support from those opposed to the state’s ongoing control of the school district and, specifically, the leadership of Superintendent Cami Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie three years ago.

Jeffries, a Seton Hall law professor and former assistant state attorney general, comes from the school-reform camp that Baraka opposes and was among the founding board members of the city’s largest charter school network.

But in the weeks leading up to the May 13 vote, where it has gotten especially interesting is that a common ground has emerged in the candidates’ views of the state’s operation of the city’s schools and Anderson’s leadership.

Newark mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries
Jefferies, a former chair of the School Advisory Board, has been among those long critical of the state’s control and he led the board in some of its latest legal challenges against the state.

Of late, he also has grown far more critical of Anderson, someone he stood with at her appointment in 2011 but who was drawn the ire of community and parent activists for what they call her autocratic style.

In an interview this week, he took a number of swipes at her “One Newark” vision for the city schools, including its plans for closures and consolidation of neighborhood schools and a universal enrollment system.

Jefferies said he did not oppose the moves in principle, and that the coexistence of public and charter schools will be critical for the district in the long term. But he said Anderson had not fully thought through her plans, leaving too many unanswered questions.

“She’s doing too much, too fast, and doing it beyond the district’s ability to execute,” he said.

His strongest criticism was of Anderson’s leadership style itself. Jeffries said she needs get the community and school employees involved in the decision-making process – or else, she should leave.

“If she can’t collaborate with us, then we need a new superintendent,” he said.

“Let me say this very clearly,” Jeffries said. “She needs to operate in cooperation with our administration. Those are the two options.”

This is not a new refrain for Baraka, by any means, and his campaign maintains that Jeffries has shifted positions late in the game. Three months ago, it was Baraka who stood at the microphone at a school board meeting and led chants for Anderson’s ouster, while Jeffries was far more subdued in the face of the mounting protests.

And there’s no question that the two candidates come from different places in their views of what it takes to improve education.

Different views on public education, school choice

Jeffries is a big supporter of school choice, and has said charter schools offer great promise to the district. He proudly cites his role in helping found the TEAM Academy charter schools in the city 15 years ago.

At a debate held at Essex County College last week, Jeffries said: “I support all public schools that educate our children. I want all public schools to be strong, and I believe parents should have the right to make the decision to what particular school should serve their child.”

As principal of Central High School, a post from which he is now on leave, Baraka often cites significant gains made there in student performance, graduation rates and just the culture of the school as evidence that district schools can improve.

And while he says there may be some place for them, he is openly combative when it comes to charters. At the same debate last week, Baraka said the charters’ aims in the city have been as much about gaining school facilities.

“I think this whole fight between charters and district schools is a fight about land and real estate, and not a fight about education,” he said. “This is about selling buildings, about putting people out of buildings, and taking them over.”

Whoever fills the seat, the mayor’s power comes more from its bully pulpit than from any statutory powers. Still, the mayor is at the political center in the city — former Mayor Cory Booker’s support for Anderson was seen as critical in her appointment and early momentum.

The latest developments in the campaign promise difficulties ahead for the state and its new education commissioner, David Hespe, as both candidates now pose potential trouble for state control and Anderson’s stewardship of the district.

Hespe has before him Anderson’s controversial proposal to waive state seniority rules in determining layoffs. Anderson has said the district will need to make close to 1,000 teacher layoffs in the next three years due to declining enrollment and a worsening budget crisis. She has started with a fiscal 2015 budget plan calling for up to 400 layoffs.

But while the waiver request was once seen as a long-shot bid, given clear state law, Hespe has still not made a decision and has raised the prospect that other options are being considered.

Anderson’s contract is up for renewal this summer, another potential source of tension. Christie and Hespe’s predecessor, Chris Cerf, both said last summer that they were committed to keeping her on, and Hespe is unlikely to change that stance.

But the renewal of a contract that paid her $247,500 for each of the last three years, plus bonuses of up to $50,000, is sure to generate still more debate.

Finally, the mayoral race comes at a time when state continues to walk a tightrope over its control of the district. The administration is already in talks with the school board to return at least some limited control over fiscal operations. And, with mounting pressure from the Legislature, too, Hespe has made clear that he wants to simplify the state’s process for exiting the four urban districts now under its control.