Newark’s Local School Board Flexes Newfound Fiscal Muscles

John Mooney | September 18, 2014 | Education
Board wants to sign off on Superintendent Anderson’s contract for outside evaluation team

Iliana Melendez, left, a senior at Barringer High School, speaks at press conference with members of the local school advisory board.
Two weeks in, the new school year isn’t getting any easier for Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, with a majority of her local school board yesterday ratcheting up the criticism of her One Newark reorganization plan.

But the board’s pushback may have a bit more muscle behind it this time, since it has been granted new fiscal powers in the state-appointed district and is starting to question some of the embattled superintendent’s initiatives.

The latest is a move by Anderson to hire an outside firm to evaluate her reforms, starting with landmark teachers contract settled in 2012 that includes the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses.

The request for proposals (RFP) went out in the spring, according to district documents, but the board now is seeking a signoff on awarding the contract, which could be up to $1 million.

The evaluation is slated to come up at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday. The teachers contract itself runs through this school year, with negotiations for a new contract with the Newark Teachers Union yet to start.

“Supposedly we have fiscal controls, and that’s why we are asking for the information,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a board member who has pressed hardest for the local authority. “We haven’t voted on it yet.”

After 20 years of full state oversight of the district, the board regained fiscal controls last year in a court-imposed settlement to a legal challenge of the state takeover.

Baskerville-Richardson said she was told by the district that the evaluation would be paid for by outside donors, and she said the board was only seeking the agreements reached with those funders. She said one possibility was the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the fund bankrolled by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but she had yet to confirm that.

“We’re asking that any fiscal transaction, be it a grant, a donation, see complete transparency and come to the board to be voted on,” she said. “All we are being told is it is coming from a donor or a funder. We are asking what it is, and for how much.”

The RFP for the evaluation sought specific research and data as to whether Anderson’s teacher-quality measures, including the teacher contract and its incentives and disincentives, led to greater student achievement.

Baskerville-Richardson’s comments came yesterday after a press event outside Newark City Hall, where she and three other board members proclaimed their continued opposition to Anderson and her controversial reorganization of the district. This followed high-profile protests of the reorganization plan last week, including a boycott by some families and sit-in by students.

Board vice president Ariagna Perello also read statements of support for the event from two other board members. A notable absence was board president Rashon Hasan.

Joining them were parents and students of Barringer High School, which has been a focal point of criticism for what families and advocates say were overcrowded classrooms and chaotic schedules, if they existed at all.

Yesterday, several students stepped up to the microphone to describe standing-room-only classes, and lunches made up of bread and cheese.

Although this is hardly the first no-confidence vote against Anderson by the board’s majority, Perello said that the board’s next step would be to seek a meeting with acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe to press him to scale back the “One Newark” plans and, ultimately, to replace Anderson as superintendent.

She said further legal challenge would come next, claiming Anderson had violated the district’s own policies about assigning students to neighborhood schools.

“What is the plan for our children, Gov. Christie and Commissioner Hespe?” Perello said. “We are no longer going to be silenced. You are no longer going to play with the fates of our children.”

Late yesterday, a district spokesperson issued a statement on behalf of Anderson:

“Over the past three years we have been committed to working in partnership with the School Advisory Board to bring greater excellence, equity and efficiency to our public schools. The One Newark plan and Universal Enrollment system were designed to aggressively address the demand by Newark families for more quality options. We will continue to engage all willing stakeholders and partners in our efforts to provide every Newark child with an excellent education.”