Superior Court Judge Donald Kessler has scheduled a hearing next Friday—Jan. 29—on efforts by the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) to block the unilateral decision by the Christie Administration to award the school district’s prescription benefits program to a politically-connected firm with ties to South Jersey political boss George Norcross III. The hearing in Newark will come just two days before Benecard Services, awarded the no-bid contract by state-appointed schools superintendent Christopher Cerf, is expected to begin processing claims.
(An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified political boss George Norcross as Donald Norcross. Donald is George’s younger brother, a congressman picked for that job by George–just as George picked Donald to be an assemblyman and state senator. Just as George will pick him to be the next Democratic senator from New Jersey, after Robert Menendez leaves office. I apologize for the error. I also am sorry the Norcross family, with Chris Christie’s connivance, has turned the state into a dynastic monarchy).
The Newark school board also has tried—unsuccessfully—to block Cerf’s action. Cerf told school board members Tuesday night that he had a “management prerogative” to change the provider for a program worth some $15 million to $18 million annually and did not have to negotiate the change. He also berated board opponents of his actions, contending he was acting “ethically” and implying his critics were not.
“I don’t know where you stand but I stand with the children,” Cerf contended, eliciting some gasps and heckling from the small audience at the board’s monthly business meeting. He said the district needed money to close a budget deficit and that he was convinced the new provider would be less expensive than the old provider, GPP.
The insurance brokerage firm of Connor Strong Buckelew, run by Norcross, recommended Benecard Services, a company founded by Republican political figure Douglas Forrester. Norcross’s businesses do much of the government insurance work in South Jersey where he also has become—with Christie–a champion of privatized charter schools.
The prescription benefits program is provided through the Newark school employees Supplemental Fringe Benefits Fund (SFBF), created in 1972 as part of negotiated settlement of several years of labor strife in the city schools. The district’s contract with the NTU requires the fund–jointly run by the district and the union–to award benefits’ contracts.
NTU President John Abeigon said the union has been willing to negotiate a change in providers but the superintendent broke off talks and awarded the contract to Benecard.
Long-time board member Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, who had served as a SFBF trustee, accused Cerf of acting like a child “who is taking his toys and going home because he can’t get his way.”
Cerf, the former state education commissioner and a long-time private entrepreneur who years ago hired Christie as a lobbyist, became state-appointed superintendent in a deal between Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka that Baraka said would bring local control of schools back to Newark after 20 years of state control.
The Baraka/Christie deal led to a collapse of a growing anti-state movement in Newark spearheaded by, among others, the Newark Teachers Union and the Newark Students Union whose members had engaged in a campaign of civil disobedience, closing down Newark rush-hour traffic on several occasions.
Baraka and Cerf have become increasingly close, appearing together at public events, exchanging compliments and even beginning a joint school initiative despite the mayor’s promise to respect the independence of the elected board.
That alliance also was obvious in Cerf’s relations with the elected school board whose members had been critical of his appointment. But that era of good feeling may have ended–at least for the board–over the superintendent’s unilateral decision to hire Benecard. Baraka’s, whose 2014 campaign was strongly supported by the NTU and other unions, has said nothing publicly about Cerf’s efforts to break the NTU contract.
“It’s obvious he doesn’t believe we matter,’’ said board member Phil Sellinger. “Why do we even bother making decisions?”
Despite Christie’s promises that local control would be returned to Newark, he is in control of a so-called “Newark Educational Success Board” that is supposed to determine how and when the state would relinquish control. Although the board–jointly appointed by Baraka and Christie–contains a number of anti-state activists, it operates in secret and its members are not allowed to comment on its deliberations.
Cerf, through his decision to change the benefits program, clearly has shown he intends to remain in firm control of the district’s operations. The board president, Ariagna Perello, reminded Cerf Tuesday night that the panel had voted to require open bidding on all contracts awarded by the district—a requirement Cerf flatly ignored.
“We are going to vote against this action at our next public meeting,” Perello said. That meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 26.
It wouldn’t be the first time Cerf ignored actions taken by the board.
The superintendent, openly showing anger and frustration with the board members and other critics, accused them of making “false statements” and suggesting they were more concerned about the district’s contract with the Newark Teachers Union than they were about the city’s school children. At several points Tuesday night, he walked out of the room when critics spoke.
Cerf has a long history of open disdain for teacher and other public employee unions. When a union member, Nancy Gianni, tried to speak at the board meeting, Cerf interrupted her, demanding to know whether she would rather spend money on a prescription drug contract than on “the children.”
When she–and others in the audience and among board members–said Cerf had provided no evidence the Benecard contract would save money, the superintendent simply answered:
“But I know it will.”