Analysis: School Chief’s Rehiring Raises Questions, Reflects Broader Issues

John Mooney | June 30, 2014 | Education
While new pact reflects lukewarm endorsement of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, keeping her in post underscores larger school-reform agenda

Credit: NJTV
Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson
Gov. Chris Christie’s renewal of Cami Anderson’s contract to continue running Newark public schools was replete with questions about exactly what it means in relation to school-reform efforts in the state’s largest district – and the governor’s own legacy.

Announced after business hours on Friday – at 5:23 p.m. to be exact – the long-expected renewal was not something the governor and his administration were playing up, to be sure.

The fact that it came with the announcement of a new local “working group” in Newark to advise Anderson was duly noted, too.

And the other strings attached to the new three-year contract, including a nominal raise and a year-to-year review, were not exactly a big vote of confidence for the controversial superintendent.

Nonetheless, Anderson’s new pact is not terribly different from the one she received in headier times in 2011, when she embarked on her much-ballyhooed reform initiative, and it mostly left her powers intact.

She will be renewed at her current pay, with cost-of-living increases that will bring her annual salary to $251,500 next year. She will also be eligible for up to $50,000 in bonuses based on yet-to-be-prescribed criteria.

And while the new local advisory group – its members have not been named — will have the immediate task of reviewing Anderson’s “One Newark” school reorganization plan for the district, the fact is that there isn’t much time to revise it before its launch in September.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe, who was at the center of the contract negotiations, wasn’t available for comment this weekend, leaving it to others to speculate about his motives and thinking.

But most agreed the timing of upcoming changes in the district under Anderson’s reorganization plan left a narrow window for a leadership change at this point.

“As the clock ticked, options became narrower, and that very well may have been the case here,” said Alfred Koeppe, the former president of PSE&G who has become a vocal critic of Anderson’s plans.

The flip side is that the renewal does little to assuage Anderson’s critics. Protests over her stewardship of the district – and, specifically, the “One Newark” reorganization – are not to go away anytime soon.

Yet another protest is planned for today, as there appears to be little change in community concern that “One Newark” is changing things too much, too fast.

Among Anderson’s more vocal critics of late has been state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the influential chairman of the Senate’s education committee.

Ruiz said last month that she believed the community’s trust has been hurt with Anderson at the helm, and yesterday she criticized the decision to renew her contract. But she added that she was encouraged by the creation of the new oversight committee.

“I am disappointed with the decision (of the contract renewal), but I look forward to the seeing the details of the additional oversight commission,” Ruiz said in an interview.

Anderson also has been fighting back an organized opposition to her “One Newark” plan from the city’s powerful clergy, and one leader in that movement said he, too, felt the community’s protests were slighted with Anderson’s renewal.

“People see this as a repudiation of our concerns,” said William Howard, pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church. “The way we are perceiving it, it is a lack of appreciation of our concerns to the implementation of the One Newark plan.”

And unlike Ruiz, he put little stock in the new working group as serving much of a monitor. “I wouldn’t go near it with a 10-foot pole,” he said. “I don’t think they have the depth of understanding to the community’s concerns at this point.”

Ultimately, the decision to renew Anderson’s contract also may have been as much about Christie’s larger aspirations, including an expected bid for the White House in 2016.

Even as local protests increased over Anderson’s tenure, including opposition by prominent lawmakers and the city’s mayor-elect, Ras Baraka, few expected Christie to abandon Anderson outright, considering that he has hung much of his education reform record on her leadership in Newark.

He highlighted Anderson in his State of the State address in January, giving her front-row prominence, and the $100 million contribution from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg three years ago only increased the national spotlight on nderson’s performance in the district and what it would mean for the governor.

What’s more, in the context of the national education reform movement, Anderson’s rehiring made an important symbolic point.

“People who’ve been watching Newark closely know that Anderson earned an opportunity to see her ambitious agenda through,” said Daniel Weisberg, vice president of the New Teachers Project, a national reform organization that has done extensive work in Newark.

“Though she may have offended certain powerful special interests and politicians, she is making tough decisions that need to be made to improve things for Newark’s students. She’s got a lot of people in Newark and around the country rooting her on.”

Still, the coming months will be telling, as Anderson now has the task of living up to the endorsement – however tepid – represented by the new contract.

One clause in the new contract remains an important one, stressing that the state commissioner still remains the ultimate authority.

“Nothing in this (contract) will be interpreted as reducing the authority of the commissioner over the superintendent,” it reads.