The tug-of-war over control of Newark public schools got another jolt this week, when the newly empowered local advisory board moved to block pay to embattled state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson.
The elected board took the action at its Tuesday meeting, employing the long-fought-for powers it regained this summer over business and fiscal management of the district. The new powers were considered a big step in returning local control to a district the state took over in 1994.
But the situation is not as simple as it sounds, which is par for the course in the troubled school district.
While the board technically was vested those powers in June as part of a court ruling, as well as improved conditions in the district, it seems the state — and Anderson — still hold the ultimate authority.
Under the transition plan for the district finished in August and signed by board president Rashon Hasan, Anderson explicitly holds the ultimate veto powers in case of any disagreement with the board.
“Should the State District Superintendent and Newark Advisory Board reach impasse on any action items relating to Fiscal management or operations, the State District Superintendent retains her ability to veto actions,” reads the agreement.
Efforts to contact Anderson or her spokesperson as to her intentions yesterday were unsuccessful.
In an interview, acting state education commissioner David Hespe said there was, indeed, a protocol to follow. Hespe, who in one of his early acts as commissioner moved to return fiscal control to Newark, said yesterday the board would first have to release its formal minutes of the meeting.
“Once the minutes are done, we’ll take a look at it,” Hespe said yesterday. “It’s a little too early to determine what exactly they did, and what impact it will have.”
He said if Anderson did exercise the veto, the board could still appeal the decision to him. But he also cited the transition agreement, which specifically spells out Anderson’s powers as long as the state still holds controls under governance and personnel.
“Until the board has governance [controls], there is still the veto power that exists,” Hespe said. “We’d like to use it as little as possible, but when necessary, we would exercise that right.”
The board has been clashing with Anderson almost from the time she was appointed to the office by Gov. Chris Christie, and that conflict has only intensified over the past year. Anderson no longer attends the board’s monthly public meetings.
The board has sought to block her on specific initiatives, especially the “One Newark” reorganization plan. The tensions grew so notable that in reappointing Anderson this summer, the Christie administration announced a community “working group” to meet with her to help assuage the criticism — although it has yet to convene a meeting.
In the meantime, board members saw the return of fiscal controls as at least a foot in the door, although prior to this week’s vote, some said they knew it would be a test to how much really changes.
“Technically, we do have the controls, although nothing that has happened since then that has indicated anything different from the past,” board member Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, one of Anderson’s loudest critics, said last week.
On Tuesday, the board also rejected a proposal to hire an outside consultant to conduct an evaluation of the district’s landmark teacher contract and its impact on student outcomes. The job would be paid for by the Fund for Newark’s Future, the organization created out of the $100 million donation to the city by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The transition agreement reached in August included other clear delineations as to what the new fiscal powers really meant.
For one, the state would still hold final say over the sale or purchase of district buildings — a hot topic of late with the expansion of charter schools in the city — but would be required to inform the board beforehand. The superintendent could also determine any legal settlements under $500,000 without the board’s approval.
However, the board would be required to approve all “district disbursements . . . subject to a review of the commissioner or his designee,” read the agreement.
Still, in maybe the most critical function, the district’s budget would still be set by the superintendent, with input from the board. “The preparation and approval of the budget for the District will proceed as it has in prior years,” read the agreement.
Along with the details on the fiscal controls, the transition agreement also includes extensive provisions around the actions and conduct of the board as a whole — clearly aimed to address the tensions with Anderson.
The agreement lays out that protocol will be agreed to for interactions among the board members and the audience, and training required for members to their new fiduciary responsibilities.