Plea by Newark Clergy Ratchets Up Debate Over School Reforms

Call for moratorium on ‘One Newark’ plan and creation of community advisory panel gets cool response from education officials

Credit: NJTV
Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson
A year ago, Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson filled a downtown Newark reception at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to unveil her proposal for remaking the school district under a plan called “One Newark.”

Let’s just say she would probably have a tougher time filling the place now.

Anderson and her sweeping plan – which calls for closing schools, consolidating others and creating a single enrollment system encompassing both district and charter schools – in the last week sustained what may have been its hardest round of hits, raising new questions about what will happen next.

Protests targeting the state-appointed superintendent and her reform plans are nothing new, of course, as parents, community activists and political leaders have continually assailed the One Newark plan.

But the latest criticism came from those who might be seen as natural allies. It started in the form of a position statement delivered on Good Friday by 77 members of Newark’s clergy, who called for a moratorium on enacting the plan and rethinking of Anderson’s approach to dealing with the community.

“The disruptive and divisive nature of the One Newark Public School Plan could have catastrophic and far-reaching consequences for the children of Newark,” read the two-page statement.

The statement had a powerful impact, due to both the timing of its release and the unanimity of its authors.

“It is unprecedented and certainly historic, but it speaks to the depth of the feeling in the community,” said Dr. Mamie Bridgeforth, pastor of Faith Christian Center, who added yesterday that she was among several pastors who distributed the statement to parishioners on Easter Sunday.

“I had parishioners who wanted to take it home and share it with their families,” she said.

It didn’t stop there. Alfred Koeppe, former president and CEO of PSE&G and recently retired CEO of the Newark Alliance, a business group partnering with the district, said yesterday in an interview that he, too, is worried about unrest in the city over the “One Newark” plan.

“I know it’s not an easy road – Newark is not an easy place,” he said. “But that’s what’s in jeopardy. People are feeling powerless.”

Koeppe said that he hoped that Anderson and the Christie administration would heed the clergy statement’s call for forming a local council of advisors to help bridge some of the divide.

“Things can get better,” he said. “It’s about having a dialogue and putting out to the community that we can do this together. . . It’s not saying burn the house down, but let’s build a better house.”

And he said the clergy statement’s influence shouldn’t be underestimated: “Every Sunday, they talk to 40,000 people.”

Yesterday, the school district released the following statement from Ruben Roberts, Director of Community Affairs and Engagement:

“While we respect and appreciate hearing the opinions of our community leaders, we do not believe a moratorium is in the best interest of the kids and families we serve,” the statement read.

“As many of the clergy know well given their participation in conversations and feedback sessions surrounding the creation of the One Newark plan, much of what they now recommend has in fact already been done — including substantial data analytics to inform our policy decisions and extensive small and large group engagement forums to solicit stakeholder input.

“We support the clergy’s call for a more civil and constructive dialogue on the future of public education in the city and are eager to partner with them in creating more of such opportunities going forward.”

Bridgeforth and other clergy said they do not believe Anderson had yet reached out to any of those who signed the statement.

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe, who received a copy of the statement, would not comment yesterday beyond saying the situation in Newark “is still very complicated, and we are still working through the issues with the state superintendent.”

But there appears to be at least some acknowledgement by Anderson about specific concerns that have been raised about her plan. In a letter to families released yesterday, Anderson said the district had postponed making final assignments of students under the universal enrollment system while it works out transportation options for children.

The enrollment system will allow students to choose the schools they would prefer to attend, district or charter, potentially resulting in children traveling across the city from their own neighborhoods to attend school.

One particularly strong criticism is that the enrollment system would also force students, some of them small children, to take public transportation to get there.

The letter to families said the “match” letters will be sent out in the first week of May, as the district works to “identify transportation options.” What those other options could be, however, is unclear given the state of the district’s 2014-15 budget, which already calls for the layoff of up to 400 teachers.

The postponement also puts the school-choice decisions close to the upcoming May 13 mayoral election, in which Anderson and her plans have become a focal point of criticism from both major candidates.

Editor’s note: The initial post of this story incorrectly identified former PSE&G chief executive Alfred Koeppe’s current position. He is no longer CEO of the Newark Alliance, having retired in January.