Tensions erupt at Newark school board meeting

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Pro-public school advocate Jimmy White is pushed away from stage at University High School by security guards after he demanded the ouster of the school business administrator.
Pro-public school advocate Jimmy White is pushed away from stage at University High School by security guards after he demanded the ouster of the state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf.

A growing sense of impatience and frustration over continued state control of the Newark schools and increasing encroachment by privately-operated charter schools boiled over into disruption Monday night at a regular meeting of the city’s school board. A pro-public school activist, Jimmie White, charged the stage at University High School where board members were sitting, angrily denouncing Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed schools superintendent. Although White was ejected by security guards, students and others in the audience cheered him on and continued to disrupt the meeting after his eviction.

“You have to go,” shouted White as he strode toward the stage. He made his comments after Valerie Wilson, the business administrator had just completed a long presentation outlining just how difficult it would be for local control of schools to be returned to Newark after 20 years of state control. “You brought us these problems.”

Newark Student Union leaders Jose Leonardo (left) and Tanaisa Brown, lead chants in White's support
Newark Student Union leaders Jose Leonardo (left) and Tanaisa Brown, lead chants in White’s support

Tensions already were high because of an apparent decision by pro-charter school parents and leaders to push back against increasing demands by pro-public school activists to slow the burgeoning growth of the privately-operated charter schools.

Increasing enrollment of charter schools, which are publicly-funded, decreases the amount of funds available to traditional, neighborhood public schools. That is happening at the same time that the state administration is cutting funds because of a budget shortfall.

Roberto Cabanes, who helped organize the Newark Student Union, speaks to supporters outside University High School.
Roberto Cabanes, who helped organize the Newark Student Union, speaks to supporters outside University High School.

The pro-public school advocates have lost ground recently. The city’s planning board–with the apparent blessing of Mayor Ras Baraka–approved the building of a new charter school by the NorthStar chain on land once owned by The Star-Ledger. The New York-based chain of KIPP charter schools–known in Newark as TEAM Academy–also announced plans to open five new charter schools. A consortium of from three to five public schools also is expected to try to convert to charters.

One of the pro-public school advocates, Annette Allston, a vice president of the Newark Teachers Association,  predicted the city would soon “become another New Orleans” where all public schools have been closed and replaced by charters. Charters now enrollt about a third of all Newark students but that number is expected to grow to nearly 70 percent in a few years.

The pro-public school advocates also felt the sting of the possible loss of a champion, Baraka, who rode to election last year  on a wave of anti-privatization sentiment. Since that time, he has moved closer to the supporters of charter schools.

Baraka did not show up–but his pro-charter rival in last year’s election, Shavar Jeffries, did. Jeffries is now head of the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) that blames public school unions  for  the failure of urban schools.

The night saw a resurgence of the Newark Student Union, an organization that spearheaded the anti-state movement and ultimately forced the apparent dismissal of Cami Anderson, the state appointed school superintendent for four years.

Roberto Cabanes, an organizer for NJ Communities United that helped organize the student union, told a rally before the meeting that the students were ready “to put their bodies where their beliefs were.”  Earlier, he had predicted “arrests” would occur in the rejuvenated efforts of the student group.

NTU President Jhn Abeigon denounced financial backers of charter schools as "parasites."
NTU President Jhn Abeigon denounced financial backers of charter schools as “parasites.”

But Cabanes and other pro-public school advocates were forced to hew to a difficult line–they kept insisting they were not opposed to parents who sent their kids to charter schools but rather to the outsiders, including Wall Street financiers, who were “pouring money into Newark trying to divide parents in the city.”

Deborah Gregory, the head of the Newark NAACP branch, took a similar tack–charter school parents should not be criticized.

“They are thinking of their own children but they don’t see how other children might get hurt because they are thinking of only their own children,” she said.

Charter school parents, however, don’t seem to buy the idea of reconciliation with public school parents. Many in the audience cheered one speaker who insisted charter school parents had a “constitutional right” to send their children to publicly-funded but privately-operated schools.

One public school advocate–Donna Jackson–referred to the fight between groups of parents as a “war” and told the charter school parents they should not be attending public school board meetings.

“Your schools have your own boards–go to them,” she said, a reference to the trustee boards that govern charter schools, many of them made up of residents of other communities. Montclair resident Cerf, in fact, was a charter school trustee.

The meeting erupted again when charter supporters heckled and interrupted Jackson–and public school supporters rose and demanded that Jackson be allowed to speak.

The tensions in the room also were obvious in the relationship between  Cerf, the former state education commissioner who replaced Anderson (a woman he had hired), and the school board–especially over the district’s personnel director, Vanessa Rodriguez.

Branden Rippey, a leader of a dissident group within the Newark Teachers Union, demonstrates outside Univesity High School.
Branden Rippey, a leader of a dissident group within the Newark Teachers Union, demonstrates outside University High School.

The board had previously tried to fire Rodriguez but Cerf blocked the move. On Monday night, the board heard a report about illegal over-time payments and a number of the members blamed Rodriguez. Cerf, clearly on the verge of losing his temper, defended Rodriguez and answered board members’ questions with brusque, snappish responses.

Note: An earlier version of this article indicated Jimmie White was directing his comments to Valerie Wilson. This morning, he indicated the target of his protest was Cerf, not Wilson.

 

 

 

15 comments

  1. Because Fields

    Perhaps it is who you quoted and the pictures you took but these are the same people who have been fighting this for years. Until we grow the movement – as charters are doing – there will be no victory. If this was enough we would have won years ago. It’s great they were there to stand up where elected officials have caved but it’s not enough.

  2. booklady

    Cerf as Goldilocks?
    Remember The Record (“NJ education chief Chris Cerf stepping down” Feb 11, 2014) told us Cerf said when an opportunity arose at Amplify “he ‘became increasingly excited about my ability to make a difference from that seat.'” Switching from NJ Ed Commissioner to Amplify honcho to NPS SASupt, can he find the seat that’s “just right”?
    If he’s so put out by questions re overtime, is this job “too hard”?

  3. ALLEN PATTERSON

    As a former public school advocate, I attended the board meeting at University High School last night. I did not stay for the entire meeting but, it was good to see a lot of familiar faces. At every board meeting, the district provide a thick package which contains a wide range of information. In last night package consisted of three sections of financial information: (1). Division of Finance, (2). Treasurer Report, and (3). Transfer and Modification Report. Most of this information is incomprehensible to the average person. As an Accountant, I took some take to study over 150 pages of financial information that I found to be quite disturbing.

    First, it is said that the district is operating with a deficit of nearly $65M. From my analysis and business experience, this is an old concept in the venture capital world. It has been stated that the privately operated but publicly funded charter schools serves nearly one-third of the student population in Newark. The financial data reveals that NPS has appropriated $225,517,974.00 or, thirty percent of a $840M spending plan. Thirteen percent of the appropriation comes from Local Taxes in the amount of $115,650,165.00, while seventeen percent of the appropriation is deducted from the Equalization Aid of $645,243,822 or, $109,867,809.00. If the charter school enrollment is expected to grow to seventy percent in a few years, the future appropriation to charter schools would be approximately $315,725,163. (Using today’s figures without the cost of inflation), the NPS will operate with a spending plan of approximately $525,024,033. A sixty-two percent deduction in its spending plan. I believe that the community should not only look into the educational impact of the charter, but, the economic impact on the district and the community and the law.

  4. Joe

    Donna Jackson made an excellent point, “Your schools have your own boards–go to them,” she said. Charter schools are like separate school districts unto themselves with their own boards of directors and their own CEOs or quasi superintendents. Charter schools are not beholden to the duly elected school boards or the district superintendent, for the most part. How the hell does a city benefit from having a parallel school system that drains funds and resources from the real public schools; there is no cooperation and collegiality, only acrimony, bitterness, dispute and strife. Donna Jackson was right, it’s a war and that is so sad for the people of Newark.

    Bob Braun: I agree.

  5. I Am A Product of Public Schools

    I was in attendance of the School Board Meeting last night & I was ashamed of the way the adults behaved. No one took in consideration the real issues and that is that the schools are failing. They are more concerned about the beautification of the schools, not the quality of the education these kids are receiving. The cut backs are being blamed on Charter school children when in fact when any kid leaves out of the district the money follows. This is something that has been happening for years. I have family members who kids have been bussed out of the city and that is never a issue or a concern. All Charter Schools are not performing well but the ones that are, why are we not trying to figure out they are doing to implement it in Traditional Public schools so these schools can stay open and they can be considered as high performing schools. We just want to fight amongst each other and the real issues where expressed more form the kids than from the adults. The kids had real life issues from programs being cut, being bullied by teachers, lack of staff, teachers serving school lunch real life shit. The adults worrying about Charters and how they budget the money, how can they have AC, why don’t they have extra curricular activities dumb shit not how can we all get on the same page and help these kids succeed.

    Bob Braun: Schools that can select and expel students largely do better than those that must accept whoever walks through their door.

    • booklady

      Product Public Schools,
      Re “trying to figure out what they are doing to implement it in trad’l PSs”: Google Jersey Jazzman & Newark charter schools” You’ll find documented information that the higher test scores likely relate to relative differences in poverty, varied enrollments of English Language Learners, less-severe SpEd diagnoses. Dr Bruce Baker oh Rutgers GSE also researches this; see School Finance 101 blog.

  6. Josephine paige

    I certainly understand the frustration of the public! I greatly disappointed in the Mayor’s support of infinite charter schools draining the public school budget! This is sad but not surprising! ANYONE who takes money from Mayor Fulop is of questionable character! I regret making a contribution to his campaign. I believed he would fight for equal quality education for all children in Newark….but politicians will be politicians….MANIPULATORS & LIARS!

  7. Bob

    Bob – It would have been helpful to our communities if you stayed till the end of the SAB meeting. I noticed you left right after you took your picture and heard Ms. Jackson speak. Had you stayed, and listened to the legions of parents – some who represented district schools, some who represented charter schools – preach about working together your story would have been much more positive and certainly you would have a broader sense of what is happening in Newark. I know you do not live in Newark and likely had a long drive home, but know we will always have room for you at our house, I know these meetings go very late – but we need you! For years we saw the same people time and time again create stunts and use hate. I really wish you could have stayed you would have seen another side of Newark – and you would have been proud.

    Bob Braun: Just for the record, I live in Elizabeth and do not have a long drive home.

  8. John Pasquale

    Your point of view on the dynamics at play presently in the District is enlightening. The message that parents are pitted against each other, while on the surface is true, is a smokescreen to the real issue. And that is, how does one district receive every 52 weeks, $1 billion dollars, cannot account for schools without printing paper, students still not in schools, two months into the school year?

    Bob Braun: Just please keep in mind the state is running Newark. The local school board is not.

  9. booklady

    Bob,
    1 I read online “Presentation to the NJ State Board of Education” by Newark Public Schools Superintendent Cheistopher Cerf Oct 7, 2015. http://www.state.nj.us/education/sboe/meeting Presentation _10-07-15_Final.pdf
    It’s Cerf’s required status report. Wondered what you thought of it.

    2 Hope Dr. Braun had a smashing time speaking at Oxford! Will you get to see a video?

  10. Public Education Supporter

    I do not live in Newark and so I can’t say absolutely whether I would end up sending my kids to a charter school if I were a resident who truly believed that it offered them a better education. I doubt it, as a life-long supporter of public schools, but until you’ve lived through something yourself, it just isn’t possible to say what you might do or would have done. However, I cannot help but agree that charter parents have no place at a public school Board meeting. They have made their choice and sent their kids to a charter school, so be it, but they should not then aggressively move to support more charter schools, pitting themselves against democratic public schools (democratic in that “real” public schools don’t pick and choose who to accept or reject). They are doing what they judge best for their children, but it should end there…they should have NO role whatsoever in pushing to take more funding away from district schools. That’s why it becomes political and that’s why it has rightly been called a war. What’s sad, besides the fact that Newark communities are being destroyed and the children pay such a high cost, is that these charter parents are the unwitting pawns of corporate shills like Jeffries who hide behind false slogans…they’re always “doing it for the kids” and crowing about “defending the civil rights issues of our times” but we’ve seen them in action enough to know exactly who they’re working for…themselves, whether driven by a pure profit motive or just suffering from “do-gooditus”, i.e.the Bill Gates arrogance of thinking they know what is best for urban, low-income people of color. Keep up the great work Bob, we depend on you.

    Bob Braun: Extraordinarily eloquent. Thank you.

  11. mike

    Dear Bob,.

    How many years is a few years till 70% of NPS are charter schools? And will the other 30% be all the special education and “difficult” students that the charter schools will not take? Would this not be in essence 2 separate and unequal public systems violating equality under the law and the constitution?

    Bob Braun: I would say five years. And, yes, it would be separate and unequal but no one seems to care about that anymore.

  12. Rick Robinson-NAACP Newark Branch

    This entire situation is a “DAMN SHAME” & the only people getting hurt by this insanely, criminal circus are the “DAMN STUDENTS”! The State of New Jersey has had control over Newark Public Schools for more than 15 years and their record, during that period is not only dismal, but they have demonstrated that their leadership has been significantly, ineffective in relation to the betterment of Newark Students! Thier report card , even if it’s not a hard copy, clearly indicates yearly failures to the students of Newark Public Schools in numerous areas. A reasonable person would think that with an “ANNUAL BUDGET OF A BILLION DOLLARS”, Newark Public Schools would be heading in a direction of elite territory, but now, under the same State of New Jersey leadership, our district and our students are currently in a downward spiral that may result in more failures! Moreover, because of limited resources, Newark Public Schools are operating in an unfair, fiscal structure, which entertains MORE FAILURES from leadership. The most important denominator in this equation is the “STUDENTS”, so please, give LOCAL CONTROL back to NEWARK!

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