The state spits in Newark’s face

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Christopher Cerf--the new Newark superintendent
Christopher Cerf–the new Newark superintendent

 

(Editor’s Note: I was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting of the state school board and asked Melissa Katz, a well-known student activist and supporter of public education, to cover the meeting for me. Her report is complete and comprehensive and will give the most thorough  account of what happened at the meeting I have yet seen).

The controversial deal cut between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka bore its first fruit Wednesday when the state school board voted 6-4 to name former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf to take over as the state-appointed superintendent of Newark schools. All six board members voting for Cerf, a national proponent of charter schools and a business entrepreneur, were appointed by Christie; those voting against Cerf were holdovers from previous administrations. No public comment was allowed at the meeting.

Cerf’s nomination had been opposed by the Newark groups that successfully drove out Cami Anderson as state-appointed superintendent after her four years of contentious, incompetent and, at times, tragic rule.  Just the day before, more than one hundred protesters rallied in Newark against the Cerf appointment. All speakers but one–Baraka himself–called for a rejection of Cerf’s appointment. Baraka, clearly angry at those–like this writer–who opposed his deal with Christie–would not criticize the former education commissioner who originally hired Anderson.

What follows is a comprehensive account of Wednesday’s board meeting written by Melissa Katz, a junior at The College of New Jersey, an aspiring urban teacher, and a student activist who has consistently supported the aspirations of Newark residents to run their own schools after 20 years of state rule:

By MELISSA KATZ

In what is usually a regular, monthly meeting at the State Board of Education, the tension in the room could be felt. Less than 24 hours earlier, over 100 people stood on the steps of Newark City Hall, protesting the proposed appointment of Christopher Cerf as the new Superintendent of Newark Public Schools. Equally as many if not more phone calls and emails were made to the State Board President Mark Biedron with the same message: the community of Newark was saying ‘no’ to Chris Cerf.

This morning, that proposal became a reality.

In a 6-4 vote by the State Board of Education, Cerf was appointed as the next — and according to State Board President Mark Biedron and current Education Commissioner David Hespe, “next and likely last” — state-appointed superintendent for Newark.

Cerf, though, was nowhere in sight.

Hespe started the discussion with long, detailed opening remarks about the state of Newark schools. He stated, in full, the following:

 

HESPE ON CERF:”The education reforms under way in Newark must continue.”

 

“We are 20 years into the state operation of the Newark district and we’re at a very, in my mind, crucial period in time in our work with the community of Newark. Two weeks ago, I announced the departure of Cami Anderson as State Superintendent. We recognized her hard work on behalf of the children and people of Newark, and I truly believe that Newark Public Schools have made tremendous strides over past years under a number of series of innovative reforms and the earnest leadership of not only the district staff and the State Board, but also local educators who have I think made a difference. The focus we should always remember is on how our vision for Newark schools will advance the best interest of children in Newark — and that’s why whatever we do moving forward, the education reforms under way in Newark must continue and we must work with all folks in Newark: all parents, all educators, all community leaders to make certain that as we focus on providing parents with greater educational opportunities, improving instruction, and developing innovative programs and establishing best practices in the classroom, that they continue; but with the knowledge that all of these initiatives are dynamic in nature, they will be constantly be improved, constantly be changed, and sustained, and intensified.

 

“With that said, I think, I strongly – and I know its shared by board members – support the involvement of the community in educational decision making, and I know that’s a key component of success of any school improvement initiative. It not only serves to bolster the commitment to make the hard decisions that are required over time to sustain these initiatives, but also help these initiatives be successful. Often, however, we see the tension between state operation in terms of developing and implementing a bold educational improvement agenda, and local control in terms of community engagement and buy-in. These tensions create a challenge that can and must be resolved if the children of Newark are to continue to see the fruits of these reform initiatives, and the people of Newark are to see the economic and standard of living improvements that come with a skilled and educated workforce. That’s why I was so pleased that the Mayor of Newark and the Governor of New Jersey came together to establish a shared vision for empowering the people of Newark to make decisions over their schools while sustaining and growing a culture of high educational expectations, accountability, and results in the City. This included the creation of the Newark Educational Success Board that will be charged with developing a clear, specific pathway with appropriate timelines and benchmarks for return of local control to the Newark community. The panel will also examine the issue of capacity building at a district and school level with government, community, and neighborhood groups to ensure that the problems that led to state takeover of the schools never reoccur and decision making focuses always on what is in the best interest of children. Communication we know will continue to be key, and we must communicate fully and effectively to students and parents in the community throughout this pending transitional process.

HESPE ON CERF:  “He has the integrity to focus on doing what is right for the children of Newark, he has the strength to stand up to any corporate interests.”

“I also announced that Chris Cerf would be recommended to the State Board of Education as the next and likely last state superintendent for the Newark School district. I wholeheartedly endorse him to fulfill this unique roll. He has the integrity to focus on doing what is right for the children of Newark, he has the strength to stand up to any corporate interests, he has the organizational experience to manage this larger, dynamic change process, he’s innovative, and a true problem-solver. He understands the Newark public schools and initiatives, as well as the community. He has the ability to work with the charter school sector. In short, he is uniquely qualified to assume this role and hit the ground running quickly and effectively. I was here 20 years ago when the state board of education voted to takeover the Newark Public Schools and appoint a state superintendent. Truly, I believe we are presented with great opportunity to only build on the progress, which I know firsthand over those 20 years is often slow, and often painful, that was made over each minute of that 20 year period, to foster the improvement of lives of school children throughout the district which we set out to accomplish many years ago. We must also recognize that this path has great opportunity for improving it [scuffles] but it’s also fraught with danger: danger of allowing the problems that led to state takeover in the first place to return; danger of distracting us from our singular goal of making children’s’ lives better.

“We need strength, we need wisdom, we need integrity, we need compassion, and we need commitment to doing what is in the best interest of the children of Newark. For those reasons, I urge you to approve the nomination of Chris Cerf as the next state operated superintendent.”

 

The resolution was then read, and board members, one by one, made comments and casted their votes.

 

  1. Arcelio Aponte: “For the record, and for clarification, we do not need to wait for a panel to begin reevaluation of the process for returning local control. QSAC [The Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) is the Department of Education’s monitoring and evaluation system for public school districts] is in place today; so it provides us the means and the tools to begin the process of returning local control. My vote today is to begin that process. By my vote, I ask the Commissioner to begin QSAC evaluation of Newark Public Schools. The last QSAC evaluation conducted was back in 2012, eight months after an initial evaluation in 2011 that concluded with four of the components of QSAC exceeding the standard. So I’m hopeful that we can do a reevaluation and get back to the standard we achieved four years ago. I also ask the Commissioner to appoint an interim superintendent of Newark Public Schools, which we have the authority today to do so; and begin today to empower the residents and stakeholders of the district by appointing a search committee that will identify a long-term leader for the district. W can begin that process today. We have the authority, we have the means, we have the tools, to select a leader for this district that will take us into the future and hopefully achieve the goal of returning local control and also improving the quality of education in the district. We have that authority today, Commissioner, I am asking you by my vote to take control of the process for returning local control by, again, starting a QSAC evaluation and appointing an interim superintendent that will allow us the time to do a thorough search to select a superintendent of Newark Public Schools. I vote no.” Aponte is not a Christie appointee.
  2. Mark Biedron: “I vote yes.” (Biedron, the board president, is a Christie appointee).
  3. Ronald Butcher: “Today we’re being asked to prove a strategy or early parts of a strategy, that is designed with that in mind [providing a thorough and efficient education].  That strategy, in effect, has two parts, one of which has been very visible to the public which is the return of local control to Newark, and the other which I think is [something we have not talked about enough] Commissioner… that is the thorough part, which is a quality instructional system for the students of Newark. Regarding the return to local control, I’m on the record of supporting the local control, the return of local control to citizens. However, I don’t want to do it just because they want it back and we want to give it back. I want to do it because it needs to go back and that certain criteria have been met. So I looked forward to the process, whatever it may be, of determining the nuts and bolts of what that strategy looks like. Today we’re being asked to appoint a superintendent, who is being proposed by the Commissioner to be the best person for that position. For a variety of reasons, primarily being one that is articulated by Mr. Aponte: we’re told that QSAC represents a barrier to returning local control. I agree with that position, however I only partially agree with that position. QSAC right now is working for the significant majority of the state of New Jersey; it is not working as an accountability system for a number of districts that have unique circumstances and situations that need to be addressed. My position is I would like to see us do a quick assessment, which we have the legal authority to do, to find out where the problems are that affect QSAC scores [scuffles]. For that reason and several others, I’ve decided that I’m voting no today.” Butcher is not a Christie appointee.
  4. Claire Chamberlain: Yes, no commentary. She is a Christie appointee.
  5. Joe Fisicaro: “I’m probably the only person here who has been in an urban district for 35 years [scuffles]. As a former member of the AFT, I know what they’re going through in Newark and I’ve discussed the situation with everyone I can talk to. I firmly would like to see local control in Newark as soon as possible, and I would like to see the Newark board select and do what Mr. Aponte said: [scuffles] a superintendent that they want. [scuffles] As reluctantly and after several days of soul searching, as temporarily as I see it now I vote yes.” He is a Christiee appointee.
  6. Jack Fornaro: Yes, no commentary. He is a Christie appointee.
  7. Edythe Fulton: “For reasons I have expressed to this board, I just think that it’s a blow to the people of Newark who expect to have somebody who really cares about them.” Voted no. She is not a Christie appointee
  8. Dorothy S. Strickland: “This is a major mistake, a rejection of the concerns of the citizens of Newark. Cerf is likely to perpetuate the dissent. Management skills not synonymous with leadership.” Voted no. She is not a Christie appointee.
  9. Andrew J. Mulvihill – He said he could  think of no one better and more capable for the job. A Christie appointee.
  10. J. Peter Simon – Yes. A Christie appointee.

Reaction from the audience included:

Donna Jackson, parent activist in Newark, had the following to say about the appointment: “This is a slap in the face of every child in the city of Newark. The vote today just told every child in Newark that we care more about contracts, getting our friends jobs, closing down schools, and falsifying data, than seeing that their future is bright. I think the elected officials that represent Newark that agreed to this tragedy should all take a deep look inside themselves to see if they really can say they care about the children in the city of Newark. The request of Mr. Aponte should’ve been honored enforced and voted on today. We have another three years of hell in Newark, and believe me, the fight and protests will continue. We will not be quiet, we will not sit still. No, we will organize; we will continue to push back. We will run Cerf out of Newark as well.”

Donald G Jackson Jr., school board member in Newark. He said: “They have drawn a line in the sand. We know where they stand. The New Jersey State Board needs to get a grip on reality — they can’t talk about local budgets and talk about how money is spent and let Cami [Anderson] spend money in wasteful ways on salaries and failed reforms. I am very disappointed, but not surprised. At the end of the day, if it weren’t a poor black and Latino district we wouldn’t have this issue in the first place.”

Melissa Katz is a junior at The College of New Jersey in the Integrated Bachelor’s and Master of Arts in Teaching in Urban Elementary Education program with a double major in Women’s and Gender Studies.

Melissa Katz
Melissa Katz

 

19 comments

  1. Lori Lalama

    Melissa, what a passionate article! It tells a vivid story of what Newark will face and what our educational system is going through now. It is important that your readers understand what is at stake and how to fight this. You are a great inspiration to many!

  2. Alec Shantzis

    Well done Melissa! The depth of the double speak is staggering to me. When Hespe speaks about continuing “the work” it is nauseating. What is being continued is the creation of new investment opportunities for Christie campaign donors. The good people of Newark are getting lied to again.

  3. Urban Educator

    The disdain exhibited to the Newark community by the Christie lackeys is abhorrent. The description of Cerf’s integrity is laughable. Baraka made a deal with the devil and the children of Newark will suffer for years to come. My heart is broken.

  4. Jane Lippincott

    Thank you for this report. A decision like this needs witnesses. Truth watchers need the facts to help them fight the criminal behavior of our power and profit seeking leaders. Newark. Camden. Trenton. Paterson. and others. Opportunity knocks…Christie grabs.

  5. Siegi

    I am saddened and disheartened. How could we the citizens of Newark let things get this bad? I am a former student of the Newark Public School system. I do not remember this kind of disregard for the students and Parents. What can we do to get Local Control back to Newark as quickly as possible?

  6. Bill Wolfe

    Thanks you and nice job – I suspect you are learning more about education from this struggle by the people of Newark than from many, if not most, of your classes.

    I have huge respect for and come to this Bob’s site to get the real story – you should be proud of the fact that he trusts your integrity. That is a honor.

  7. Bill Wolfe

    Baraka didn’t speak out critically about Cerf and oppose him because of the deal he cut with Christie.

    Christie poisons everything he touches – he has now driven a wedge between Baraka and the people of Newark and badly undermined Baraka’s leadership.

    That’s part of Christie’s plan – disgraceful.

    I’m really disappointed in Baraka for either not understanding all this, or thinking he could sell the deal to the people of Newark.

    Bob Braun: The mayor believes he has accomplished what no one has previously accomplished–a discussion of local control by state officials. Many of his supporters believe that the mayor will help undermine Cerf once the new superintendent arrives. I do not believe that is what happened–I sat through the Sharpe James trial and I know what Christie is capable of doing to strong urban leaders who get in his way politically. Christie believes he has bought peace in Newark long enough to make his presidential campaign credible. He will use the Newark deal as further proof of his ability to reach agreement with opponents. But care must be taken–the mayor does not tolerate criticism easily, especially from people outside the city. He sees his critics as worse enemies than the likes of Christie. Trust me, I know.

    • Urban Educator

      I am a supporter, not a critic of Baraka. In my view, discussions of local control are worthless. Granting an interim superintendent a three year contract is a misuse of the term interim. Cerf is the master in the big house to use Baraka’s analogy. One Newark on steroids will complete the charterization process. EWPs and other veteran teachers will continue to be harassed and brought up on tenure charges. Violations of Special Education and Bilingual/ESL federal mandates will be unabated. A colleague of mine and a custodian on Bob’s Facebook page have brought to light the lack of supplies at summer school. By the end of last year at my school there were no dry erase markers and no pencils. These horrific conditions are by reformer design. Cerf is the reformer king. He is far more dangerous than Anderson. The lack of unity in the Newark community has brought a plague upon us.

  8. booklady

    If Christie’s six Board appointees were in line, meeting with Mayor Baraka was irrelevant.

    It’s ironic that business people on the Board voted to bring back someone who–if he’d neglected responsibilities (recent US Dept Ed ruling) or hired loser personnel (Anderson)–they wouldn’t re-hire in the private businesses they run.

  9. Nicole Goodman

    Melissa thank you and job well done!

    Dear State Appointmented Board Members, do you all think that the people and citizens of Newark and allies across the State of NJ lacks the intelligence to see exactly what is going on?

    It saddens me that these State appointed board members are spineless individuals controlled by a political machine. These are INNOCENT CHILDREN, do you have any integrity and morals?

    The State has failed to show any substantial improvements, academically or otherwise in any of the State operated districts. This is beyond criminal and what point with the Federal government step to conduct a full investigation. What the State Department of Education is doing in these low socioeconomic urban school districts is another form of racketeering!! President Obama create a team to follow ALL the money being distributed to these schools. How is it being spent? Question the job titles created? NEPOTISM?? Academic progress under state control? Internal connection with Source for Teachers for substitute teachers. There are extensive ethical concerns as it relates to several current practices being implemented.

    In God We Trust,

    • Urban Educator

      Nicole,

      President Obama is part of the problem, not part of the solution. He chose Duncan, who met personally with Anderson. RttT was developed under Obama’s watch. Baraka contacted him to no avail.

  10. Joe

    Brava to Melissa Katz, a great article.
    Was Hespe joking? He said, “…he [Cerf] has the strength to stand up to any corporate interests.” Ha, ha, ha, not funny because Cerf IS a corporate interest unto himself. Will he stand up to Amplify and his bosom buddy Joel Kline, another corporate interest? Will he stand up to the corporate interests of Broad, Gates and the Waltons? Talk about Kafkaesque and Orwellian double speak.

  11. Nicole Goodman

    Melissa thank you and job well done!

    Dear State Appointmented Board Members, do you all think that the people and citizens of Newark and allies across the State of NJ lacks the intelligence to see exactly what is going on?

    It saddens me that these State appointed board members are spineless individuals controlled by a political machine. These are INNOCENT CHILDREN, do you have any integrity and morals?

    The State has failed to show any substantial improvements, academically or otherwise in any of the State operated districts. This is beyond criminal and at what point will the Federal government step in to conduct a full investigation? What the State Department of Education is doing in these low socioeconomic urban school districts is another form of racketeering!! President Obama please create an investigative team to follow ALL the money being distributed to these schools. How is it being spent? Question the job titles created? NEPOTISM?? Academic progress under state control? Internal connection with Source for Teachers for substitute teachers. This team shall also create committees to have dialogue through town hall meetings with community members and Educators.

    There are extensive ethical concerns as it relates to several current practices being implemented.

    In God We Trust may he He Bless OUR CHILDREN!!

  12. Mr. Outside

    Well, the newly appointed superintendent wasted little time. He was at Cedar Street yesterday afternoon beginning immediately on the task with which he was given.

    Surprisingly, the Mayor was not around to receive him. This is disappointing. How can Baraka equivocate a discussion about local control with actual local control or a guarantee thereof? We’ve heard repeatedly about Christie and Baraka’s agreement, but we don’t know any details. So much for the transparency Hespe waxed so poetically about. Would the Mayor care to share what the terms of this agreement are?

    Bob Braun: I understand Baraka will be on WBGO tonight at 8 pm.

  13. Public Education Supporter

    The only rational reaction is that of Donna Jackson, i.e. the fight must not only continue, it must be intensified. I noted at the protest at City Hall on Tuesday how few people were there, all things considered. OK, it’s summer, I get it. But come September, there has to be full-out pushback by all stakeholders – teachers, students, parents, right-thinking politicians (thank you Senator Rice!) and everyone else who knows that even if you don’t live, attend school or work in Newark, it is your duty to fight because as was repeatedly cited on Tuesday, “your district could be next”. Cerf should be made uncomfortable at all turns and challenged forcefully on every action he takes. Christie, Hespe and the State Board of Education have clearly declared war, let’s fight back!

  14. Rev. Tony Johnson

    Melissa Katz’s report is terrific. What does Christie have on Joe Fisicaro that he couldn’t vote his conscience? Remember how Christie paved his way to the governorship. Bob Braun didn’t look at all retired at the rally the day before the vote. The struggle must continue.

  15. Mythology

    As I have counseled Mr. Braun in the past, whenever he seemed to be wavering in his belief that justice would be served for the students and teachers of Newark, to persevere as none of the criminals in this destruction of education in New Jersey expected the pushback that they have gotten led by him and the of Newark. Mr. Braun through his blog continues to be a major catalyst in this effort.

    That said, I would like to make a recommendation to the Mayors of Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson, to coordinate their staffs in order to monitor each and every penny being distributed by the state in their public school system. They should begin as a coalition of one monitoring group visiting each City Board of Education with the sole purpose finding how tax payer monies are being misappropriated. After coordinating the data it should be presented to the Education Law Center in order to have it presented it to the Supreme Court of the United States as an injustice perpetuated on the students and tax payers of New Jersey. This should be done in order to have the New Jersey State Take Over Law declared unconstitutional and abolished.

    Let us deal with reality here. Christopher Cerf is simply being put into office as Superintendent of Newark Public Schools to hide the fact that the State of New Jersey has misappropriated tax payer dollars under the direction of Cami Anderson and she was let go because legally, the governor of New Jersey could not protect her. Estimates of this misappropriation are climbing past the $75 million mark.

    Nationally, since the Governor is running for President of the United States, Cami Anderson should be looked at as another failed appointee of Governor Christie. Similar to his disgraced BridgeGate staff.

    If a Federal Audit of all the School Districts taken over by the State in New Jersey is done, it will be found that she violated numerous Federal Laws.

    Let me close with this thought. The seed of discontent and the knowledge of the corruption in education going on in New Jersey was started in the City of Newark. This awareness of this corruption culminated in the election of Ras Baraka as Mayor of Newark over a year ago. This fight for justice is about the future education of the children of Newark. Nothing more. These past injustices to the children of Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, etc. by this governor has to be exposed to the Whole World!!!! A man like this cannot have a national and international platform to spew his distorted concepts and steal money from children and thus deprive them of their education. These are crimes against Humanity we are witnessing.

  16. Iqway

    Newark needs an independent Education Council free of a private or public agendas. This is the real Newark for those of us born and raised in this city; we are clear that back door politics is always the name of the game and money/power/ego will drive it all.

    We are always looking for the lesser of two evils in all Newark Politicians; look at our city council; a few great stories there!

    Never a new day for honest people to actually do right for our Newark children! Newarks know the awful conditions, teachers, and administrators within NPS; in the end as parents all we want is a great education and a system that places Children First!

    The next three years is not interim; it is a strategic plan to finish dismantling NPS and public schools; by the time Newark takes control it will be a corporate jungle and NPS in complete disarray.

    This fight in Newark just got worse; Bob put it well; Cerf was to high of a price to pay!

    Our CHILDREN deserved better!

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