In its first big act after 22 years of state control, the Newark school board last night picked one of the city’s own as the next superintendent.
The board unanimously chose assistant superintendent Roger León for the post, in what turned out to be a two-man race for the opportunity to lead the state’s largest district after it returned to local control last year.
By all accounts, the other leading contender was A. Robert Gregory, also a longtime Newark educator who had been its interim superintendent for the past six months. But Gregory does not have the same deep community and political roots as León, and also served as deputy under the last state-appointed superintendent, Chris Cerf.
Other finalists were superintendents from Nashville and Baltimore, Sito Narcisse and Andres Alonso, respectively. They were both considered long shots in a district that was clearly looking to stay local in this first choice of a new superintendent.
“We had two great candidates, they both were well qualified for the district,” said board chair Josephine Garcia after the vote. “But we felt that Mr. León would lead our district in the best direction going forward.“
Asked León’s strengths, Garcia said: “His experience, his qualifications, everything he has done for this district.”
She said a contract had still to be finalized, including León’s salary.
Indeed, León was a popular candidate inside the community, as evidenced by a big turnout of support at a candidates forum on Friday and again a boisterous backing last night.
A Cuban-American native of Newark and 25-year veteran of the district, León has certainly put in his dues in the city, serving as a teacher, principal, and administrator under more than a half-dozen superintendents, both locally and state-appointed. He may have been best known as the principal of University High School, but it was often remarked how Leon had survived and thrived in a number of jobs through all these years and leadership changes.
But the same meeting last night also displayed the deep fractures in the community that Leon will face takes the job on July 1.
During a public session preceding the vote, audience members complained about a number of issues that remain unresolved under the city’s newly established control, from ongoing tensions with charter schools to a shortage of textbooks. Midway through, a half-dozen students interrupted the meeting and took the stage with a bullhorn to voice their grievances as well.
“No matter who we picked as superintendent, we are going to have to work together,” said Wilhemina Holder, a longtime parent and community activist. “We have a lot of issues after the state was running things. Now we have one of our own who we should all come to embrace to help move the district forward.”
“No more excuses,” she said.
One of León’s biggest challenges will be in addressing the ongoing tensions over the expanding charter footprint in the city, where close to half of the students attend the alternative schools and to which the district pays close to a third of its budget.
Michele Mason, head of the Newark Charter School Fund, was on hand last night and said she looked forward to working with León. She had exchanged messages with him just before the vote.
“He reassured me that he was focused on students having access to a high-quality school,” Mason said. “I take him for his word, and indeed believe that is what he will do.”
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a prominent Newark native and an influential legislative leader as chair of the Senate education committee, placed her backing behind León, and last night called him an “American dream story.”
“From Newark, growing up here with government assistance, becoming a teacher and then administrator, “ she said in an interview. “In whatever discipline he served in the district, he excelled.”