Newark Superintendent Talks School Funding, Teacher Contract and More

NJ Spotlight News | February 1, 2017 | Education, Politics
Newark's state appointed Superintendent Chris Cerf wants elected officials to equitably fund school districts.

Newark’s state appointed school Superintendent Chris Cerf sat down to talk to NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: Thank you for being here.

Cerf: Thanks for having me.

Williams: Gov. Christie’s “Fairness Formula” has been dealt a legal blow, not necessarily a mortal one. Newark public schools have a lot at stake if funding’s reduced, right?

Cerf: Well, let me talk a little bit about what I think happened. To the governor’s credit, he has started a conversation that has been very difficult to start for a long, long time. A lot of people have different perspectives on what the right outcome should be, but the school funding formula has been stuck in place for a long time. So, I don’t think this is a mortal blow, I think what this is, is the way sausage is made in Trenton.

Williams: But you do have a lot at stake if funding’s reduced?

Cerf: Oh sure, every superintendent has a great deal at stake, but we also want it to be distributed equitably. But look, you’re never going to find a superintendent of any district of any size that isn’t going to say, “My job is to do the best we can to educate students with the resources we have and more is better.” That’s not a controversial position.

Williams: Senate president and the Assembly speaker have dueling proposals. Is there anything in there that you would like to see happen?

Cerf: Here’s what I would like to see. I would like to see the elected branches of government duke it out and come up with a formula that appropriately and adequately funds all schools. For a number of reasons, the elected branches have been more or less missing in action and it has been really driven by the judicial branch. There are a lot of reasons for that, I’m not even talking about what emerged from the process, but we have, in this state, a tremendous need to fund our schools, to fund our pensions, to fund our roads, to fund our hospitals and choices need to be made. I do think people who have been voted into office are in the best position to make those very difficult calls.

Williams: Let’s talk about your spat with the teachers’ union. They’ve been without a contract since 2015. John Abeigon, who is the head of the Newark Teachers Union, is saying that they’re going to file a complaint that 11 administrators of yours are unfit for office. Have you received that formal complaint yet?

Cerf: We haven’t and one of the oddities of this is that they said that they had filed it and they generated newspaper coverage of it, when in fact, they have not filed it. In fact, it’s merely a negotiation tactic. I pay absolutely no attention to it.

Williams: Is there any merit?

Cerf: There is not. In fact, they named one of their own members and then when the member pointed out that she was duly certified they retracted it. I have at my desk the actual appropriate certification for many of the others that don’t even require the certifications. I’ve been assured this by the state. But here’s the larger issue, this isn’t about that, that’s just theater on Mr. Abeigon’s part. I am very committed, very committed to entering into a new contract with our teachers. I think it is urgently important that we pay our teachers more and that we pay them appropriately and that we remain competitive with adjoining districts. But it takes two to tango.

Williams: Do you have common ground with the teachers’ union? You sent a scathing letter, Oct. 6, accusing him of slander and lying.

Cerf: Well I certainly stand by those statements. Is there common ground? Look, I think that common ground, I hope, is let’s do what’s in the best interest of the students of Newark and the best interest of the students of Newark will be served by reaching a fair contract with our teachers. I am always eager to point out, I’m overhead, but the real folks who make a difference for our 50,000 students are the teachers and I want to enter into a contract. I also don’t want to go bankrupt. In fact, it’s a felony to go bankrupt. So when people come and say we want $50 million over three years I say let’s have a serious conversation. It’s been very difficult to have that serious conversation.

Williams: What’s the sticking point?

Cerf: Well I can’t really go into negotiations — the details of negotiations — but it’s essentially about money. That’s the basics of the point.

Williams: Graduation rates are up, largely in Newark, but not anywhere close to the 90 percent statewide average. What are you doing?

Cerf: So, we’re doing a lot and I appreciate you mentioning that. We have seen a great deal of progress, in Newark, over the last several years. In fact, five or six years. Four years in a row our graduation rates are up. It’s at 73 percent; 2010, 2011 it was in the high 50s. That is an extraordinarily positive news. Our reading scores are up, our relative performance compared to other districts, the growth measures for reading and math are doing well.

Williams: OK thanks, Chris Cerf.

Cerf: Thanks so much. Bye-bye.

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Newark Teachers Union President Discusses Contract Negotiations