Embattled Newark School Chief Has Important Friend in High Places

Christie expresses support for Cami Anderson and her reforms but won’t comment on her contract renewal

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Amid calls for embattled Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson to step down, the man who appointed her in 2011 went out of his way yesterday to express support for her reform plans and praise her for the work she’s done in the state-run district.

“I have always backed Cami Anderson, and she was complimented by me in the State of the State speech just a few months ago,” he said during a Statehouse press conference, alluding to her front-row status at the January address.

But the governor hedged on whether he would renew Anderson’s three-year contract when it expires at the end of the June.

When asked specifically whether he will renew her $247,500 contract that expires June 31, he called it a “personnel decision” and a matter of negotiation between himself, Anderson and acting Education Commissioner David Hespe.

“I am not going to get into those issues, because we are in a tenuous contract period,” he said. “I am not going to get into telling you, before I make a decision on it and before I have more extensive conversations on that with Commissioner Hespe and Superintendent Anderson.”

Still, his strongest words were for Newark Mayor-elect Ras Baraka, who has been openly hostile to Anderson and has called for her resignation.

Christie said the mayor’s office, by state and local law, “has nothing to do” with the schools.

“The fact is I spoke with the mayor-elect yesterday, and I made it very clear that I wish him the best of luck in Newark . . . and told him that he has free rein in what he wants to do in Newark,” Christie said.

“But also made it very clear to him that it is the state government that runs the school system, and while I would talk with him and listen to his ideas, I was very clear that we are the deciders to what happens in the Newark school system,” he said.

Keeping contract talks private is, of course, nothing new, but the comments were in contrast to ones he made almost a year ago when the local protests in Newark were first reaching a boiling point – back then, Christie was defiant when he asserted that Anderson would stay on the job and her contract would be renewed.

That may still be the case, but the latest, more circumspect comments come as opposition grows to her “One Newark” plan for reorganizing the city’s schools.
A group of nearly 80 clergy spoke out against the plan and Anderson’s leadership last month. Then, last night, a small group of students disrupted a local advisory board meeting, bringing the meeting to a halt and prompting Anderson’s exit. The group spent the night in the hearing room, drawing visits and support from Baraka and other city leaders.

Anderson this morning said she would be willing to meet with the students, and she issued a statement in support of the students’ rights to express their opinions. But she blamed others for “coaching” the students’ sit-in, and said it had become unruly.

“I, and many members of the School Advisory Board, are adamant that the district must conduct business in a professional and respectful manner, including and especially when we disagree,” the statement read.

“The young people who were coached by adults to stage a sit-in last night disrupted the meeting — where they would have had the opportunity to speak, they instead shouted at members who tried to bring the meeting to order and refused my offer to meet with them.

“As adults, we must set high expectations for our young people and support them in expressing their views in a productive fashion. The politically orchestrated event that happened last night certainly does not model excellence for students.”

Christie yesterday backed Anderson, saying he wished the students would protest the state of their schools — which have been under state control for two decades.

“A few students sitting in the offices doesn’t concern me about the efficacy of Cami Anderson’s plan,” he said. “It is a good plan, and students have a right to protest, as they always have.

“What they should be protesting is the lousy education they have been getting in Newark for years isn’t changing more rapidly,” Christie said.

He said Anderson’s “One Newark” plan should proceed. The plan calls for closing and consolidating some schools and working closely with the expanding charter school community in a new universal enrollment system.

“This does not shake my confidence in the plan,” the governor said. “It is a good and solid plan.”