Educators Help Put Baraka Over the Top, Schools Pose Daunting Challenge

John Mooney | May 14, 2014 | Education, Politics
New mayor's consistent criticism of Superintendent Anderson and her 'One Newark' plan pays off at polling places

A jubilant Ras Baraka, Newark's newly elected mayor.
Ras Baraka’s successful run to be Newark’s next mayor was as much about education as any other issue in the city.

A former teacher and now principal of Central High School, much of his credibility rested on his success as an educator. He focused his campaign rhetoric on fighting the state’s two-decade-old control of the school district, and became the harshest critic of state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson and her policies, often calling on her to resign.

And touching a nerve in this city, he portrayed his opponent, Seton Hall law professor Shavar Jeffries, as a pawn of the reform and charter school movement.

Last night in his victory speech before a raucous crowd at the Robert Treat Hotel, Baraka spoke of the need to fight the ongoing closures of Newark’s public schools, and thanked the various education unions that were the backbone of his support.

“We have to be the mayor that keeps our schools open, and make sure they are good for all of our students,” he said to loud applause.

But with the electioneering over, now comes the challenge of governing in a city where the district’s troubles will not go away — even with a new mayor.

Among his key supporters and standing with him on the stage last night was Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, no obvious ally on education issues as a reform-minded mayor in the state’s second-largest city.

But Fulop said in an interview afterward that Baraka was a “a really smart and reasonable guy,” and was not the enemy of all school reforms — including charters — that he was portrayed to be in the campaign.

Much of the money that came into Jeffries was tied to the school reform movement, including $850,000 from a committee affiliated with the Democrats for Education Reform, a national reform group.

“Tomorrow starts the process of healing and bringing the city together, and that includes the reform movement,” Fulop said.

“[Baraka] understands that the charter community is in Newark and part of the education system in Newark,” he said.

It would have been hard to tell from the rancor of the election, in which Baraka attacked Anderson’s plans for the school system at every chance.

And Jeffries, for all his allegiances with charter schools as a founding board member of one, hardly proved to be a big backer of Anderson, either, criticizing many of her policies and strategies.

But Jeffries was clearly seen as more reform-friendly, and there was considerable trepidation among those backing wholesale changes in the district about Baraka’s prospects for victory. The outcome of the election was particularly critical to Anderson’s fate in promoting her “One Newark” reorganization plan for the district, which is now being rolled out.

For example, it appeared to be no coincidence that the controversial enrollment letters to families for next year were postponed and only went out last week to avoid making an impact on the race.

Even more controversial, Anderson’s request to the state to waive seniority rights for teachers in the case of coming layoffs also has remained in limbo now for more than two months, with acting commissioner David Hespe yesterday saying it remains under review.

Still, even with Baraka’s victory, the fact remains that the district is being run by the state, and the mayor holds limited powers even in the case of local control.

But several observers said yesterday that they saw Baraka’s victory as providing a new voice in the city on these issues, even if just a symbolic one.

“It means we have a life,” said Michael Dixon, vice president of the Newark Teachers Union, a strong backer of Baraka’s. “He’s the first piece of getting local control back. Putting him in that slot, everything changes. Everything is not reform anymore.

“He’s not against charters, but he’s opposed to closing community schools to put charters in them,” Dixon said. “We need someone on our side, and he is truly an educator.”