Newark Public Schools chief: District ready for local control

In the face of corruption, mismanagement and low achievement scores, the state took over control of Newark schools 22 years ago. Now, Newark’s public schools are on track to regain local control. Last week, a key transition plan was given final approval by the state’s commissioner of education. But, the full transition’s only just beginning. Former Commissioner and current state-appointed School Superintendent Chris Cerf sat down with NJTV News.

Williams: Mr. Cerf, what’s the process of going through this transition and how’s it going?

Cerf: Well, we are headed toward full local control. The process began with a series of reviews by the state in which they look at each of the different areas that constitute operating a school district, program and instruction and governance fiscal operations personnel. We’re then reviewed and we’re found to be at the appropriate high level for the state to now vote. So, the next thing that happens is the state Board of Education will take a recommendation from the commissioner of education and vote on it. If that is not the magical moment when local control is returned, what the vote will be, as I understand it, is that it will be a vote to then begin a process for designing a transition plan. And, when that is completed, accepted and presented to the district, local control will have been returned.

Williams: But, you have spent the last two years since you had the state-appointed job getting the district ready for this local control. So, are people and committees in place where you know where you’re going?

Cerf: This has been my passion and commitment — to make sure all the work that has happened over the last many years, which is leading to increased graduation rates, increased reading and math performance and frankly, leading to improved quality in many, many different areas and domains. We have in place a system of governance that is run by and for the people of Newark that is able to build on those successes and move them forward. Yes, the board has been working very hard, its been undergoing substantial training, we’ve had several elections for school board and the board is very committed to successfully running what amounts to a $1 billion a year enterprise.

Williams: You’ve talked on this program before about the QSAC scores. It’s those list of points that benchmarks, if you will, that have to be followed. What are they?

Cerf: They’re personnel, governance, fiscal, program and instruction and operations.

Williams: And most of those you’ve got through a couple years ago. Why did instruction and governance take so long?

Cerf: Well, they are harder standards to meet. On governance, we actually scored above the threshold of 80 last time, but there’s a second criteria that often isn’t talked about which you have to demonstrate not only that you hit the mark, but that you have the systems and processes in place to sustain that progress.

Williams: Six years ago, when you were the commissioner of education for the state, Newark argued that QSAC scores were really not fair in judging them and grading them.

Cerf: Well, QSAC is a statue. It’s passed by the state Legislature. It was in fact supported by a state senator from Newark, who in fact sponsored it. So, it is the law of the land, if you will. I actually agree that there are aspects of QSAC which as an original matter I would reconsider. But, those are the rules that we need to comply with in order to successfully transition back from state control to local control.

Williams: What’s the biggest challenge ahead?

Cerf: Well, look, the biggest challenge ahead is frankly measured by what our goal is. Our goal is that every single child who lives in Newark, born into Newark, moves into Newark has access to a free high-quality equitably accessible public education. So, there has been a lot of disagreeing, there has been a lot of squabbling, there has been a lot of politics around how to get to that and I think the biggest goal is to unify the city, the specific leadership around organizing everything we do around that objective.

Williams: In a town where the community has been very involved in the school process.

Cerf: The community has been very involved in the school process, the community itself has not been united around that. If you judge the world by my inbox, and you always need to apply a discount when you make an interpretation based only on what people are writing to you. There’s still a lot of division out there around whether the city is ready and this board is ready for local control. I believe they are and I believe there is no better time in the history of the city to do that. The mayor is doing an amazing job. There’s unity in the leadership.

Williams: And you, if they do this right, will be out of a job?

Cerf: Well, I plan very much to complete my mission here, and my mission here is to do two things. One, is to calm the waters so that we can all look beyond our reflexive belief system. Whether it’s for or against charters, whether it’s for or against educator evaluations and focus on one value. And, that is getting every child regardless of birth circumstance a fair chance at life. And, secondly, to make sure that we transition this with an effective succession plan and board management to sustain those changes.

Williams: OK. Thank you, Chris Cerf.

Cerf: My pleasure, thank you.