The Long Goodbye: State Board Plans Newark Exit Strategy

With demonstrable progress made — and most of the rancor laid to rest — Newark prepares to resume local control

Chris Cerf is the superintendent of the Newark school system.
Six years ago this month, a fierce battle over control of Newark public schools centered on a state monitoring system that many thought unfair.

The system — the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) — required the state-run district to meet standards in student achievement and other benchmarks that dozens of other districts in the state could not meet.

The local advisory board protested, going so far as to defy the Christie administration and approve a formal resolution in August 2011 to appeal the state’s QSAC findings.

Now, as Newark schools are on the verge of ending their 23 years of state operation, the QSAC review is again at the center of the process, but this time as a far more forgiving measure.

Special waiver

Thanks to a special waiver, old state-mandated targets that 95 percent of students pass state proficiency tests, for instance, were adjusted so that the district instead needed to show progress by even just a few percentage points a year.

Four-year graduation rates are still a measure, but so is a five-year rate, as well as credit acquisition for students who still weren’t quite ready for a diploma.

And in an interesting twist of fate, the state education commissioner under Gov. Chris Christie who battled with the local board back in 2011, is now the district’s superintendent, shepherding it along the final steps to local control.

“I think the district is ready to take the next step,” declared Chris Cerf, the state commissioner from 2011 to 2014 and now Christie’s appointed superintendent since 2015.

Transition to local control

The State Board of Education is expected to formally start the transition to local control in the next month, as the Christie administration recommends the last of the state’s controls to be handed to the local board.

State Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington announced the state’s recommendation earlier this month, saying the district had achieved at least 80 percent of QSAC’s mandates in each of the five categories of control: instruction and programming, governance, budget and fiscal controls, personnel, and operations.

“I think it is safe to say this is … monumental,” Harrington announced at the state board meeting. “It shows the collaboration and work by the local board and the community on behalf of their students. It is really an incredible time we are experiencing now.”

The district had already passed QSAC’s review in budget, personnel, and operations, but the last two focusing on instruction and governance had been the most difficult. That’s where the flexibility came in.

With Cerf now at the helm, the district last year applied for and received a waiver, or “equivalency,” from the administration that would replace the strict performance requirements with more nuanced measures that focused on incremental steps.

The equivalency approval lists dozens of detailed measures that give the district credit for even slight gains in student performance and how Newark scores compared with similar districts. Elsewhere, the new measuring stick includes gains in preschool enrollment and the percentage of special education students in inclusive settings.

Ratcheting down the rancor

In addition, with local control in sight, the local advisory board that had often been in open combat with former superintendent Cami Anderson turned down the rhetoric and rancor under Cerf — and vice versa.

“The board is very focused on a responsible stewardship of the district,” Cerf said yesterday. “I am personally impressed by their commitment.”

The district’s finances are hardly a given either, as the district faced a steep deficit in its $1 billion budget just a year ago. But with some last-minute help from the state this summer and what he called ongoing reforms in district spending and budgeting, Cerf said the district’s finances were sound.

“I would say the district is fiscally healthy,” he said yesterday.

Nevertheless, the process is not a quick one; the next step after the state board’s approval is for the state and local board to agree to a transition plan. Included will be a local vote on how the Newark board will be constituted, by either election of the city’s residents or through appointment of the mayor. Mayor Ras Baraka has said he would support local elections.

And for all of Cerf’s praise of the district’s progress, the end of state control will likely mean the end of his job in the district. Cerf yesterday wouldn’t speak to that, but repeated his goals when taking the job two years ago.

“I had two basic goals in coming here,” he said. “One was to work to effectuate the transition to local control. The second was to build consensus around the goals and policies needed so we can sustain that progress.”

Cerf listed the various performance gains over the past several years, and said the time had come. “This is a very big deal,” he said.