Spending Down Zuckerberg Gift, Celebrating Transition in Newark Schools

John Mooney, Founding Editor | December 18, 2015 | Education
Foundation for Newark’s Future -- created by the original $100M donation -- will be shuttering its office early in coming year

Credit: Frank Conlon/FNF
Kimberly McLain, president and CEO, Foundation for Newark’s Future
Five years and counting, the fund created by the $100 million donation to Newark schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is down to its last dollars — give or take a million.

The $200 million fund, which reflects a match from other big funders, is down to about $10 million yet-to-be-committed money, its executives said. And with the balance to be handed off to a local foundation to steward, the Foundation for Newark’s Future — the entity create out of the donation — will be closing its downtown Newark offices in early 2016.

It has hardly been a smooth ride since Zuckerberg announced the gift on “Oprah,” alongside Gov. Chris Christie and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker. The district has been a firestorm of debate, including about the value and impact of the donation.

In the end, one of the largest contributions the gift funded went to performance pay as part of an innovative contract, including tens of millions in retroactive pay to veteran teachers. A big chunk went to charter schools, and to admittedly unexciting logistical and consultant projects about improving how schools are evaluated or teachers hired.

Credit: Frank Conlon/FNF
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That said, FNF wasn’t shy about celebrating this week when it held a kind of going-away party at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, titled “An Evening of Reflection and Inspiration” and treating more than 200 people to a salmon dinner and two hours of speeches.

The presenters ranged from preschool and community leaders who saw the less-noticed largess of the foundation toward early childhood programs, to current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, hardly a close friend early on but saying kind things about how the alliance has evolved with its more-recent support to city initiatives that include $12 million for a new “community schools” effort.

Neither Booker nor Christie attended the evening, and they were only once mentioned from the podium. The teachers’ contract only came up briefly as well, and no union leaders spoke.

And what happens next is still a question, as are details of how the remaining funds will be used. (Disclosure: NJ Spotlight is a project of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the entity that will serve as steward of the remaining funds.)

Fuller accountings will surely be made once FNF closes its doors, and one already has come in former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff’s bestselling book, “The Prize.”

But on Monday, with Russakoff among the invited guests, there were nevertheless highlights to projects that didn’t get the headlines over the past five years, and sentiments not shared so much before, at least in public, including from some in the philanthropic community.

Excepts from some of the presentations on Monday night follow:

“Before I took this position, I was asked how we would deal with the Foundation for Newark’s Future. I can safely and unapologetically say we have had an excellent relationship and worked tirelessly on things that would seem easy, although we always want to make them difficult.”

“I want to thank the Foundation for Newark’s Future for being a partner with us in Newark, and I want to thank [FNF president Kimberly McLain] for stepping up and being a leader. . . And hopefully we can find some other rich guy to give us some money, and we can do this again.” — Mayor Ras Baraka

“I wanted to start with a story. One of the programs we have is called ‘My Very Own Library,’ where we distribute free books to kids in over half of the community schools and we also do a lot of community engagement.”

“Last year, our team went out to one of the sites and I met this wonderful young girl named Tamasha …. It was in that moment where all the things we talk about as adults in terms of policy and research, it was that moment where I saw all we talk about doesn’t have to be that difficult. For kids who don’t have books at home, they cannot read. And I told her I’d like to get you more books. And she said, ‘Can you buy me some?’”

“And true to form, I gave her my cell number and said whenever you’re out of books call me. And now she calls my cell phone or the office, and the conversation starts the same way: ‘This is Tamasha, I’m out of books.’ And I send her some more.” — Kimberly McLain, president and CEO, Foundation for Newark’s Future

“We have not always agreed about what we should be doing or how we should be doing it. One of the things I find almost overwhelming is a bunch of people who a few years ago would maybe be fighting each other or not wanting to even be in the same room together are all in this room.”

“We will learn and we should continue to learn from the mistakes we have made along the way, and particularly we should emphasize this is a long journey.” — Paul Bernstein, chairman, FNF board and Pershing Square Foundation, which committed $25 million to the fund

“We are at the beginning of something, not the end of something. And I think that was the initial leaders’ hope, that there would be an incredible infusion of resources that would jumpstart the resources that are here in an even faster and accelerated way.

“We really recognize this is just a start, and that much more important work lies ahead … This is hard work, and it requires long-term commitment. So for us, what began five years ago, we saw as a catalyst. This is the conclusion of FNF’s planned time to be in Newark, but it is just the start of so many initiatives.” — Jen Holleran, executive director of Start Up: Education, the separate Zuckerberg foundation that teamed with FNF

“In 2011, it was interesting to hear FNF come on board with what was a very audacious goal to catalyze change in the school system with a very targeted strategic investment. The idea that five years would be what it would take to change the conversation is one that was debated quite heartily in the philanthropic community.”

“We struggled with the goals and tactics and how we should approach this work. . . Many of us had worked in this space for decades. . . I will say the conversation was robust, and we haven’t come up with all the answers.”

“I am very optimistic, in that we are having very different conversations as a community … It takes more than just [money], and we in the community are ready to tackle that, to be engaged.” — Shane Harris, Prudential Foundation