What’s Left of Zuckerberg’s Gift? $30 Million of Funds Given to City’s Schools

With a year to go, Foundation for Newark’s Future makes some smaller, still-critical, endowments

foundation for newark's future
Four years down, one year — and about $30 million — to go.

That’s the timeline for the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the sometimes-controversial fund launched in 2011 with much fanfare by Gov. Chris Christie and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a $200 million act of philanthropy for Newark public schools.

The original Zuckerberg gift came in at $100 million and was matched by a host of donors, bringing the total to $200 million.

And while the Newark schools — district and charter — remain by far the biggest beneficiaries, the fund is starting to branch out a little from just education-related projects.

Earlier this spring, FNF announced a $1.5 million contribution to the City of Newark’s summer youth-employment program, which could potentially serve 2,300 teenagers. And last week, it was another $1.5 million to the Newark City of Learning Collaborative project being led by Rutgers-Newark along with other institutions to lift college graduation rates in the city.

“If the goal is to improve educational outcomes for kids, we can’t just stop at high school,” said Kimberly McLain, FNF’s president and CEO in an interview last week with NJ Spotlight.

“We believe it’s a natural place for us. It’s not just getting them to college, but through it and giving them the supports they need,” she added.

Each was FNF’s first contribution to either the city or university-based programs.

And in an hour-long interview in the foundation’s offices off the city’s Military Park, McLain said there could be more to come, although she was not offering much in terms of detail until the projects were decided on.

“What we are excited about is to make investments that are going to be impactful, sustainable, and will outlast us,” McLain said. “I think you will see us spend a lot of time focusing on ways we can partner with the community and organizations.”

Up to now, the biggest investment in the district was to the Newark teachers contract in 2012, helping cover both retroactive pay and the district’s historic performance bonuses for exemplary teachers.

That contract runs out this summer, and there has been little progress getting state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson and the Newark Teachers Union to even sit down to negotiate, let alone reach a new deal.

When asked whether FNF would help extend those bonuses or other contract-related costs, McLain said she couldn’t speak to that without a new contract on the table.

‘That is so hypothetical,” she said. “But if they come to an agreement and they come to us, I’m sure we’d consider it.”

She said the foundation was doing an evaluation of the contract that it would release in the coming months. FNF was also among the funders of a retraining program for school staff laid off in the district.

The fund has also benefited charter schools, with close to $50 million raised through the Zuckerberg gift and the New Schools Venture Fund and the Newark Charter School Fund.

But as the foundation scales down — it now has four employees, down from nine — the past year has seen numerous smaller grants as well. For example, FNF continues to focus on early literacy through its “My Very Own Library” program in 21 schools.

McLain maintained that the money has brought important change and progress, citing especially its early-childhood initiatives and literacy programs. But some of its beneficence has been controversial, coming in the midst of fierce debate in the city over the stewardship of Anderson and the state’s control.

Outside consultants have been among the recipients of funding; this past year $1.4 million went to the New Teacher Project, finishing up the group’s work in implementing the new contract and the teacher evaluation system that it required. In addition was $135,000 to the Parthenon Group, a global consulting firm that has built performance reports and other data-based projects for schools.

The fund has played a minimal role in the development of the One Newark plan launched by Anderson last year, a universal enrollment system that placed students in both district and charter schools.

But McLain didn’t shy from public debate over the plan — some of the street protests that could be heard right outside her office windows.

“I think the notion that all students have access to all schools in the city is a good thing,” she said. “With any new comprehensive undertaking like this, there are going to be issues to be addressed, and the district is working hard to address those.”

The plan remains that a year from next week, the Foundation for Newark’s Future expects to close up shop, and McLain said its impact has been profound and, she hopes, lasting.

“The sunset is still five years, and we will officially close our doors in June, 2016,” she said. “At least that is the current thinking, but obviously that will be up to the board.”

“We started the foundation in order to improve the educational experiences for the children in Newark,” she said, “and I think we have made progress in that regard.”