It became clear early on that Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson would face a grilling in her first visit to the state Legislature after three years on the job.
State Sen. Ron Rice Sr. (D-Essex) even hedged on thanking her for appearing yesterday before the Joint Committee on Public Schools, which he co-chairs, saying Anderson’s attendance came only after repeated requests.
But four hours later, it was hard to gauge who, if anyone, won a standoff that saw legislators asking often-heated questions of the controversial Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie three years ago.
Anderson, who has become a lightning rod for protests in the state’s largest school district, hardly addressed many of those questions, and a few times dodged them outright.
But she at least survived the grilling, smiling at reporters – as well as a handful of protesters – afterward as she quickly exited.
Aiming to fend off criticism of her management style, Anderson — who was accompanied by a mostly silent state Education Commissioner David Hespe, her immediate boss — was at times apologetic, if not deferential, to the legislators.
For instance, she went out of her way to praise former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, among the most ardent critics on the committee, as a “trailblazer” in New Jersey politics as the first African-American female to hold that position.
Whether it was enough is another question.
“We have finally gotten on the record most, if not all the questions we have,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), the other co-chair, after the hearing closed.
“She gave some answers,” Jasey said, “but the underlying issue here is a lack of trust. And I’m not sure that can be repaired, honestly.”
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the state Senate’s education committee, was equally harsh.
“There are mixed messages here: what the district perceives to be happening, and what our constituents know to be happening,” she said afterward.
The hearing was much-anticipated, as much as for the political theatre as anything else. Many of the state’s key education lobbyists were sprinkled about the hearing room, following the proceedings with great curiosity about what might happen.
But little new information, no real developments resulted from the back-and-forth between the superintendent and her antagonists.
Much of the questioning had to do with Anderson’s “One Newark” reorganization plan for the Newark district, which critics call a fiasco and Anderson maintains offers an opportunity for real choice for families. The plan has included the closing or consolidation of schools, and a new universal enrollment system that includes both traditional and charter schools.
There was an air of double-speak to some of Anderson’s answers, including her description of a handful of school closures as “adjustments that were needed to address large fiscal challenges.”
After Anderson denied there was a “rubber room” for educators not placed in the schools, state Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) called out a former principal in the audience who said he had been assigned to one.
Anderson was stronger in her defense of other instructional changes, saying they have “breathed new life into some of our lowest performing schools.”
Maybe the most contentious moments came with Oliver leading the charge, along with state Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, against Anderson’s style of leadership, including her refusal to attend public meetings of the district’s advisory board.
Oliver, who said Anderson needs to get a tougher skin, recalled a community meeting she attended where the superintendent’s staff didn’t allow questions, Oliver told Anderson that she needed to stop treating people in the community like children.
“You make the assumption that you are the sharpest tool in the shed,” Oliver told Anderson.
For Rice, the hearing was also a chance to continue his long-running complaints about the district’s sale of the 18th Avenue School to the TEAM charter school network, which he claims was a backroom deal to benefit TEAM and its well-connected benefactors.
“There are those who believe that maybe your heart is in the right place, but your agenda is not,” Rice said.
In the end, there was also a sense of exhaustion on both sides. When Rice sought to pursue more lines of questioning, Hespe broke his silence and said that four-plus hours of testimony showed a good-faith effort by Anderson and the administration.
“We are not shirking our responsibility to answer your questions,” Hespe said.
But Jasey said this was hardly the end. A future hearing is planned for those in the community to share their perspectives, Jasey said, adding that Anderson may be invited back.