Op-Ed: Returning to Local Control — What Does Newark Need to Know?

Mary G. Bennett | October 26, 2017 | Opinion
As a significantly diminished and dismantled district is returned to local control, we need credible and independent accounting in all areas

Mary G. Bennett
September 13, 2017, was a momentous day for Newark. From the state Board of Education unanimous vote on two resolutions to return Newark’s public schools to local control to the press conference in city hall that afternoon, joy and celebration were in the air.

But wait, we do not have local control yet. The process approved by the state board last month requires additional steps and approvals from the New Jersey education commissioner’s office and the state board. In all, three transitions plans must be developed: one for governance, one for instruction and program, and a full transition plan that establishes the framework for returning local control of the district with a definitive date for the return to occur.

The citizens who were disenfranchised by the state takeover of the public school system for 22 years and boldly disrespected during the past six years must know: Who is developing these transition plans? Who from the community is representing them in this process? Who has the commissioner of education assigned to collaborate with Newark to develop these plans? How is the Newark Education Success Board’s work, “Pathway to Local Control,” being used in the development of these plans? What opportunities will there be for community input?
The commissioner indicated in the state board meeting that all the plans are due to her office in Trenton by December. The Newark community needs to know more about the process and how to participate in it.

Waiting for answers

As we wait for answers to these questions, we ask for all-encompassing audits of the Newark school district. Yes, we want the authority to control our schools. In every area, the elected board, the selected superintendent, and the community must be ready to be responsible and accountable for the 35,000 students in the public schools. We need a balance sheet on the impact of 22 years of state control.

The district that is being returned is significantly different than the one taken over 22 years ago. There are 18 fewer schools; 16 were closed in the past six years. There were more than 50,000 students in NPS in 1995; now there are less than 35,000 in the district public schools and approximately 15,000 in charter schools. The proliferation of charters has tripled in the past six years under the Christie administration and its state-appointed superintendents. Funds transferred from the NPS budget to charter schools were zero in 1995 when the state took over. In 2009, $60 million was transferred to charters. Now nearly $250 million is being transferred to charter schools and that amount is growing. More charter growth would drain
additional funds and students out of the district public schools. The expansion of charter schools in Newark is currently being challenged in the courts.

Significant changes

The staffing for the public schools has undergone significant changes with the elimination and retitling of positions that directly impact services to children. As all these changes, restructuring, retitling, and revising have occurred, questions from the community were either not answered, partially answered, or distorted to imply the community embraced these staffing “choices” and program cuts.

As a significantly diminished and dismantled district is returned to local control, we need credible and independent accounting in all areas. Now, right now, the community, the citizenry needs answers that are totally clear as to the current status of Newark Public Schools.

There is no way an entity with a budget of nearly one billion dollars should change hands without full disclosure. There are organizations with expertise to audit operations throughout the district; educational programs and services including school-site visits and evaluation of the curriculum and instructional materials in use; financial operations including all outstanding payments and projections for financial solvency for 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years; an overview of any current litigations and the status of all contracts for bargaining units of district employees. This audit process needs to begin and conclude before the district is returned to local control. Therefore, any problems, issues, and concerns would be raised and known; and the external group(s) doing the work would be working to find out “what is” without prejudice.

The Newark Advisory Board agrees with these requests. It is entitled to a comprehensive and detailed accounting of the district before assuming full responsibility for its operation. We believe these independent external audits should be paid for by the state. The community wants answers, and all this work (transition plans and audits of NPS) needs to move forward with all deliberate speed and transparency, with cooperation and support from the commissioner of education, state board, state-appointed superintendent, Mayor Ras Baraka, NPS Advisory Board, and all elected officials who have participated in the state takeover process.

Endorsed by

State Senator Ronald Rice Sr.
28th Legislative District

Dr. Marion A. Bolden
Retired Superintendent, NPS

Eugene C. Campbell
Retired Superintendent, NPS

Trina Scordo, Director
Communities United, NJ

Rev. Dr. Mamie Bridgeforth, Pastor
Christian Faith Center

John Abeigon, President
Newark Teachers Union
Local 481 AFT/AFL-CIO

Thomas Giblin, President
Essex West Hudson Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Lawrence Hamm, Chairman
People’s Organization for Progress

Sharon Smith and Johnnie Lattner, Co-Founders
Parents United for Local School Education

Wilhelmina Holder, Chairperson
Secondary Parent Council

Yolanda Johnson, CEO
Parents Educating Parents

Deborah Smith Gregory, President
Newark NAACP Chapter

Vicky Stapleton, Action Vice President
National Organization of Women-NJ

Lamont Merritt, CEO

Leah Owens
Member, Advisory Board for Newark Public Schools
Chairperson of Program and Instruction

Kathleen Witcher
Member, Essex County Parent Teachers Association

Ingrid Hill
Community Activist – People’s Organization for Progress

Denise Cole
Newark Community Activist

Mary G. Bennett
Retired NPS High School Principal
Chair of Newark Education Success Board