Unlikely Partners Form Alliance to Shape the Future of Newark’s Public Schools

On heels of Cami Anderson’s resignation, Gov. Christie and Mayor Baraka name panel to work on returning district to local control

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
The new panel given the task of guiding the end of state control of Newark’s schools – announced Friday by Gov. Chris Christie and Mayor Ras Baraka – is intriguing right down to its name: the Newark Educational Success Board.

Yet in spite of that name, there will be plenty of challenges ahead, not only in bringing together disparate groups and interests, but also in overcoming a number of regulatory and legal hurdles as well.

The joint statement released by the two political leaders amounted to dropping the other shoe, following the stunning news earlier in the week that controversial Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson would be stepping down after four years, succeeded by former state education commissioner Chris Cerf.

The new panel will have nine members — five appointed by the governor, four by the mayor – who will set the city on the path toward regaining control of its schools after 21 years of state operation.

The makeup of the group is a fascinating, although the appointees may not be surprising for two politicians who bring vastly different perspectives to the issue.

The governor’s appointments are Cerf, a longtime ally who awaits expected approval by the state Board of Education to take over the district; state Higher Education Secretary Rochelle Hendricks, also a Christie appointee; former Verizon CEO Al Koeppe, an outspoken business leader; Donald Katz, founder and CEO of Audible Inc., a Newark-based company; and Newark Trust for Education president Ross Danis.

The mayor’s appointees are the Rev. Perry Simmons of the Abyssinia Baptist Church in Newark; Mary Bennett, the former principal of Newark’s Shabazz High School; Grace Sergio, a parent activist from the city’s South Ward; and Jose Leonardo, a senior at Science Park High School and president of the Newark Students Union.

“Our goal is simple and shared,” read the joint statement from Christie and Baraka, “Understanding the challenges that lie ahead and engaging in a meaningful partnership with leaders at every level of the process to get the job done. The future of our children deserves no less.”

But what comes next and how long it will take is an open question, especially now that Christie is running for the GOP presidential nomination and amid questions about whether appointment of the panel is more of a political move than a real policy shift.

Christie had shown little inclination up to now to return the district to local governance, and had even scoffed at such a prospect in the past in — declaring last year that he was the “decider” for the schools and that Baraka has “nothing to do with it.”

Nonetheless, the plan is for the panel to start meeting immediately to reach out to the community and begin setting the benchmarks for what it will take to return the state’s largest district to local operation.

According to the announcement, the panel will issue recommendations by next summer.

“The panel will immediately begin to solicit input from and engage the local community in its deliberations and provide us with a detailed roadmap, including benchmarks for return to local control as soon as that can be accomplished but no later than by the end of the upcoming academic year,” read the joint statement.

“We have both committed to executing that plan with the urgency that our families deserve and in cooperation with the Newark School Advisory Board, State Superintendent, Commissioner of Education and State Board of Education with the goal of restoring full local control as soon as possible after the established benchmarks have been met.”

Two members of the panel reached over the weekend said they think it can be done on that timetable, while acknowledging the tasks ahead.

“I don’t think it is beyond possibility that we’ll have a coherent plan by next spring,” said Koeppe in an interview yesterday. “That’s the goal set out, and I think it is achievable.”

Danis, who has led the Newark education trust since 2010, said he, too, is confident.

“I don’t think any of us want to serve on something that won’t result in real outcomes,” Danis said last night. “I can’t imagine this group is not going to put its heads down, roll up the sleeves and reach the goals that have been laid out.”

Part of the challenge is that New Jersey laws and regulations specify a detailed process for returning districts to local governance, with a specified checklist for different benchmarks on various aspects ranging from budget to personnel.

Last year, Newark won back fiscal control, but it has missed the majority of the remaining benchmarks up to now, albeit amid considerable dispute and even legal challenges. Interestingly, one of those challenges came in 2012 against Cerf, the next superintendent, when he was the state commissioner and used his prerogative to retain state controls.

Nonetheless, even if the district were to meet the marks, the transition takes at least a year or two to even begin under state law, including a local referendum to decide whether the city wants an elected board or a mayor-appointed one.

Will those laws now need to be changed? And beyond Newark, will these changes also apply to other state-controlled districts in Paterson, Camden and, to some extent, Jersey City?

Danis, for one, said there will clearly need to be some far-reaching adjustments. “I would think there will be a number of levers that need to be switched,” he said.

Koeppe said there is much work to be done before deciding that, including rebuilding a trust in the community for the school leadership under the state, one that he said was badly hurt under Anderson’s leadership.

Koeppe, along with clergy and political leaders, had been among the more outspoken business leaders in questioning Anderson’s tenure a year ago. He said the task force will immediately have to start engaging the community through meetings and outreach.

“That should be pretty straightforward,” he said. “The bigger issue we have watched in Newark is the failure of trust, and that’s more difficult to repair. The community has not had had the respect it deserves.”