Fragile Truce Shows Signs of Crumbling During Newark School Board Meeting

John Mooney | October 27, 2015 | Education
Charter-school advocates clash with teachers’ union leader, students disrupt gathering and chant ‘Cerf must go’

Protesting students disrupt yesterday's meeting of the Newark school board.
It’s not like he had a wide berth to begin with, but the relative calm that greeted Chris Cerf’s arrival as the new superintendent of Newark schools is pretty much over.

At the local school board’s monthly public meeting last night, the rancor of the Cami Anderson era was back, with the Newark Teachers Union stepping up its presence and many of the usual activists on hand.

At one point early in the meeting held at University High School, a dozen members of the outspoken student group who once took over former superintendent Anderson’s office disrupted the meeting by setting up in front of the stage with a banner reading “Full Local Control.”

“Cerf must go, Cerf must go,” a few chanted.

The superintendent, the state’s former education commissioner, remained largely stoic throughout. Unlike his predecessor, he has vowed to stay at the public meetings and face the consequences.

He did issue a statement later in the evening, saying it was “unfortunate that a few people chose to speak outside the confines of the public comment structure, interfering with our ability to share information and to learn more about how we can better serve the community.”

“We remain committed to engaging in an open and productive dialogue with the students and families of Newark in the months ahead,” read the emailed statement.

[related]But a new dynamic has also entered the fray in the form of charter-school parents. About 30 filled the middle of the audience last night, and at times they directly confronted their schools’ critics in what has been at the center of debate in the city.

A big crowd of charter-school families – some estimated there were as many as 400 people — came out last week to speak in favor of the Uncommon Schools charter network’s bid before the city’s Planning Board to build a new school in the Central Ward.

Several spoke during public comments last night — a rare occurrence, as testimony has been consistently anti-charter. And when NTU President John Abeigon roamed the aisles of the high school auditorium to rev up his members, one charter parent confronted him: “What makes you so mad?”

An NTU supporter shot back at the woman: “Go to your own meeting.”

The charter advocate did not back down: “This is my meeting. I live in Newark, too.”

While hardly harmonious, the board’s meetings had taken a calmer turn since Cerf took the helm this summer, replacing Anderson after her four tumultuous years on the job.

There appeared to be a fragile peace as schools opened more smoothly than last year, and community meetings advanced toward a goal shared by all sides: the return of the city’s schools to local control after 20 years of state operation.

But Cerf has been confronted by a host of challenges since then, putting him on the defensive.

For starters, the superintendent announced last month that the district still faced a $15 million-$20 million deficit in its nearly $1 billion budget for the year, raising the possibility of further layoffs and program cuts.

Then Newark’s two biggest charter networks at the same time announced plans to continue their growth in the city.

Uncommon Schools plans to build its new school off Court Street by 2018 and, with state approval already in hand, plans to open a total of three new campuses starting next year.

Meanwhile, TEAM Academy has applied to the state to add five more schools accommodating as many as 5,000 more Newark students.

Regarding both the budget and the charters, Cerf has said he would try to limit any impact on school programs within the district. But he has acknowledged that some effects are likely to be felt, and he has acknowledged that the growth of charters has put the district in a difficult financial bind.