Last Friday, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka joined Gov. Chris Christie in announcing what they described as the beginning of the end of the state’s 21 years of controlling the city’s public schools.
Coupled with the news announced by the governor a few days earlier — that Newark’s unpopular schools superintendent, Cami Anderson, would be stepping down, to be replaced by former state education commissioner Chris Cerf — it was an eventful few days for the mayor and his long-standing push for the city to regain control of its schools.
But there was also some criticism and questions, even from Baraka’s supporters, about why he would make a deal with Christie, who a year earlier had chided the mayor while describing himself as the “decider” when it came to Newark’s schools.
Others questioned how Baraka could sign off on the appointment of Cerf, who had been Anderson’s boss and benefactor.
Baraka sat down with NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney yesterday to discuss how the agreement came about, to explain his reasoning, and to describe his expectations – from Christie, from Cerf, and from his own city — going forward..
Following are excerpts from the 45-minute interview:
Q: How did this deal come about?
Baraka: I don’t have any concrete steps to how this transpired. I think it was time to happen. Whatever people’s different narratives have about it, it was just time for it to take place. Our struggle for local control has always been paramount on my mind and something I wanted to make happen for a very long time. That was our whole inspiration, and to have any discussion, it was always to have local control.
The governor could have invariably left us with the superintendent we had, and we could have been struggling with her with no input and, more importantly, no discussion about local control. To even get it on the table and be talking about it, and the governor coming out publicly that he would work toward that, that is progress.
Q: But was there a specific meeting or turning point that set this in motion?
Baraka: They came to me and said we want to talk about education in the city of Newark, they wanted to talk about what’s going on. I went down there a few weeks ago and spoke with the governor about what my position was. I was singularly focused on one topic, and I didn’t want to get into a discussion or debate about anything else other than that.
Q: Did he tell you Anderson was leaving and ask for your backing of her replacement?
Baraka: It never got to a point where this is going to happen or not going to happen. But it was clear being down there that this was a transition, something was going on, and ultimately he is going to make the decision who will be the next superintendent. I gave him my thoughts to what would be difficult and what would not be difficult.
We can have this discussion until we are blue in the face, who should be appointed, who shouldn’t be appointed. The reality is we want to be able to determine who will be here. The state has been here too long. My focus was very narrow.
It wasn’t a quid pro quo. It was more like us coming to a settlement, an agreement that they’d pick a superintendent and help us get local control.
Q: What did you think, leaving the meeting, would happen?
Baraka: I left hoping all kinds of things, thinking all kinds of things. But the reality is, he could have picked someone we all loved and nobody had a problem with, but in the end, we still wouldn’t have local control. We could have “Kumbaya” for the next four years. But we’re not in this struggle to get a person we all like. We are in this struggle to be in charge.
Q: Are you comfortable with Chris Cerf?
Baraka: Cerf has some things he has to answer for. Ultimately, he was the commissioner when all this took place. Those are all issues I have and people in the community have. What is his motivation, what is his intention here? But I’m thinking positive about what will come of this.
I’ve heard (the criticism that he’s much like Anderson), all that might true. But what’s different now is we were never talking (with Anderson) about local control, and this gives us an opportunity to seize, and it’s up to us to seize it.
Q: But this process takes time. Under the law, there are different steps that take place and could be as much as three years, even without any hurdles.
Baraka: Absolutely, this will be less than three years. It could be less than two years. In my mind, we’ll at least finish the next school year with a plan to how we get local control, and the steps on the local level to where we want to be. If it means changing laws or meeting benchmarks, these are things we need to start immediately.
I don’t think that an impossible task. People thought Jim Crow would be here forever. I believe it can happen. I think the state is ready for it. I think the state board is ready for it. I think the people in the state are ready for it.”
Q: Chris Cerf is getting a three-year contract, although each year is renewable. Do you think he will be here three years?
Baraka: No. Our intention is he not be here three years, and I think his stay here is him working so that he doesn’t need to be here three years.
Q: Realistically, how long do you think until the district is indeed back in local hands?
Baraka: I would say a year, year and a half. I would say two years, tops. That’s what we are working toward.
Q: Under current law, there will need to be a local vote to whether it be an elected board or one appointed by the mayor. Which do you support?
Baraka: I support an elected school board.
Q: Have you met with Cerf to talk about all this?
Baraka: Yes, we had a very cordial meeting in here about what I thought was important for him to do. I asked him why he wanted to be here in the first place. I had a list of things that I thought were problematic that need to be addressed.
For the most part, his overall posture was conciliatory. That he was willing to listen to people in the community and do all these various things. In order for him to be successful, I think he needs to have a huge win in the beginning. He has to make that decision what it is.
Q: Did you ask him his plans for “One Newark,” the controversial universal enrollment system put in place by Anderson and supported by Cerf? You have called for it to be ended outright. Do you have a sense that will change?
Baraka: I raised it with him, and hopefully he understands the wisdom of not keeping things the way they are. We had that discussion, and he knows my position.
I think that is possible (before next fall). I know a lot of people think it would be chaotic, but I think if we did it now, it could happen. It’s really about communication and letting parents know.
Q: What if this doesn’t happen?
Baraka: If he does just the same things, he will have a problem. I don’t know if he wants to be Cami Anderson No. 2, but nobody is going to let the same things happen again. But it doesn’t make sense for him to do that.
He has an opportunity now to do something different in this town. Hopefully, he takes those opportunities.
Q: You trust the governor on this?
Baraka: I don’t know if I would say trust. Trust is based on relationships. Trust is something that is built. It is incredibly premature to say I trust anybody. That word is too strong. But I’m willing, and my faith to what we can accomplish is greater than my pessimism about I think they can do.”
Q: And there are no side deals involved, maybe additional municipal aid or other concessions from the state that we haven’t heard about yet?
Baraka: We didn’t get into all that. I didn’t want to mix apples and oranges. That’s another discussion altogether.
Q: So bottom line, those in the city who say you may have been taken advantage of are wrong?
[related]Baraka: Some of that is paternalism, and I guess they believe in Christie more than they believe in themselves, which is really pathetic. Ultimately, I come from a tradition of people who fought against tremendous odds. I don’t have a doubt that it will be difficult, but I also have no doubt that we will win.
I never thought that the road to local control would be handed to us on a platter, that it would be an easy road, that it would be something simple.
Q: Have you spoken with community leaders? What’s the reaction?
Baraka: People fundamentally have problems with Cerf, they absolutely do. Because of his history and different things. And he has to be responsible for that, he has to answer for that, he has to defend his own record. His job is not going to be a cakewalk for him in the city, and I’m sure he knows that.
Q: Will you stand with him at a public meeting? I assume he has agreed to come to a meeting, after the last two years where Anderson would not attend what had become raucous public meetings of the local advisory board?
Baraka: I think he wants to come, I think he has something to prove. And I’ll be there. I’m waiting for the day.
Q: So we’re talking full local control, not incremental or anything like that?
Baraka: I think this will happen. Everyone is going to roll up their sleeves, and naysayers aside, we’re going to get local control back, and sooner than people anticipated.
The minute Christie said he was the decider, that was an epiphany for me. He is right, he is the decider, and that is the fundamental problem. He shouldn’t be.