The Reality of Cerf’s Return Starts to Dawn on Newark’s Politicos, Teachers

Former schools commissioner -- and Anderson’s mentor -- may be in for a rocky reentry as some concerns, challenges are raised

Former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has been tapped to serve as Newark superintendent of schools in the wake of Cami Anderson's departure.
A day after the Christie administration announced that controversial Newark school Superintendent Cami Anderson would be stepping down from the state-run district, the reality of what comes next settled in for the political players and the union rank and file.

For starters, the State Board of Education announced that it would hold a special meeting on Friday to consider Anderson’s replacement, former commissioner Chris Cerf — a week ahead of the board’s original plan.

And while the board did not disclose the precise purpose of the meeting, some members made it clear that Cerf — who led the department and presided over the board’s meetings for four years — was not a done deal.

“I get concerned when people think it is a rubber-stamp process,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board’s past president and a Newark native. “That is not the case.”

Aponte, echoed by at least two other members, said he was not necessarily opposed to Cerf, but there were questions as to whether Cerf was the best fit for the job — replacing a woman whom he had appointed to the post and essentially shepherded through a contentious four years.

“What will be Chris Cerf’s focus, what will he be engaged in, and will he be the public face of Newark Public Schools when dealing with the community and parents?” Aponte asked. “Is that Chris Cerf? I don’t know. That’s what we want to know and talk about.”

Ronald Butcher, the board’s longest-serving member, was more circumspect with his words but said he also had questions. When Cerf was commissioner, the two of them had sometimes been at odds over a variety of policy issues.

“I have concerns about [Cerf’s] past performance, and it is something I want to take a look at,” Butcher said yesterday.

Cerf will need at least six votes for approval by the board, which now consists of 10 members. A formal vote is still slated for the board’s next monthly meeting on July 8.

Meanwhile, the Newark Teachers Union yesterday elected its first new president in 20 years, picking longtime union official John Abeigon to replace outgoing president Joseph Del Grosso.

It was no small development, given that the union has long been a thorn in Anderson’s side and is about to face new contract negotiations to follow up on the district’s landmark deal of three years ago.

[related]Negotiated by Cerf and Anderson on one side and Del Grosso and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten on the other, that deal led to the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses for teachers, a point of pride for both Anderson and Christie.

But it also has been a point of dispute between the union and the administration ever since, with the union contending that the contract’s full provisions to protect teachers were never adequately implemented. The contract expires on June 30.

Abeigon, 57, has been a chief antagonist of Anderson’s and hardly struck a conciliatory tone yesterday about her successor, saying he wanted to take the union on a more “radical” path than his predecessor, adding that he doubted a similar contract could be struck under his leadership.

“I am my own man, nobody hired me as a ‘yes’ man, ” Abeigon said at a post-election gathering at a restaurant in Newark’s Ironbound district.

“I am more radical, and more open to radicalism,” he continued. “I recognize this is a war on public employees and school employees in general that somehow needs to be turned back.

“We have to be a different union,” Abeigon said. “Of course, we still need to be bread-and-butter services for our members, since for most members that’s Number One. But obviously, there is a contingent that wants to see more radical action, more involvement with social justice causes.”

A former English teacher, Abeigon finished ahead of two rivals for the post, with only about a quarter of the eligible members casting mail-in ballots.

Abeigon drew 452 votes; Branden Rippey, leading the Newark Education Workers faction, drew 365; and former union secretary Michael Dixon drew 243. Abeigon’s slate also won 23 of 29 executive board positions.

Rippey said he would challenge the vote, and Dixon also questioned the mail-in process that saw such a low turnout. But both also said they hope the union can unite in facing off against the new leadership of the district.

“Cami was one battle in a bigger war,” Rippey said. “Cerf may be no better, and may be worse.”
Finally, the day ended with the first meeting of the district’s School Advisory Board since Anderson’s departure announcement, a setting that had been home to some of the most contentious moments in her tenure in the city.

Anderson stopped attending the public meetings in 2013, but through last night, she remained a prime topic of discussion.

Mayor Ras Baraka, one of Anderson’s prime nemeses, who apparently signed off on her departure, spoke before the board and extolled the next steps as crucial to having the state return local control to the district.

Board members also made their feelings known, and overwhelmingly approved a resolution to appoint assistant superintendent Roger Leon to succeed Anderson — a clear rebuke to Cerf.

The vote is not binding, and the board is slated to meet with assistant state commissioner Peter Shulman next week to further discuss the next steps.

But chair Ariagna Perello said during a break that the board’s prime focus must be on returning the district to local operation after 20 years of state control.

“We need to focus on local control, and it is only then where we can see positive change,” said Perello.