Cerf: Newark school budget deficit is all Cami Anderson’s fault

Cami Anderson? I don't know Cami Anderson and, besides, it's all her fault. (MIke Simpson)
Cami Anderson? I don’t know Cami Anderson and, besides, it’s all her fault. (MIke Simpson)

The state official running the Newark schools conceded at Tuesday night’s school board meeting that his predecessor–a woman he appointed–created a $63 million budget shortfall by relying on assumptions that “turned out not to be true.” Christopher Cerf, who named Cami Anderson to the Newark job four years ago, quickly added he didn’t believe she and her staff had deliberately lied about the budget or had done anything illegal.

Cerf, the former state education commissioner and a business entrepreneur whose company held contracts with the Newark schools, was then quickly put on the defensive by a school board member who accused him of budget manipulations in the effort to prevent the district from running out of money by the end of the year.

“This is a crisis,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson of the budget shortfall that has resulted in a spending freeze at schools throughout the state’s largest school district. Baskerville-Richardson demanded that Cerf admit his own responsibility for the district’s financial troubles.

He angrily replied, “Okay–I accept responsibility.”

But, clearly he did not, all but dismissing the financial troubles as a problem he can resolve by the end of the year. Meanwhile, principals have complained they cannot pay for basic supplies and services like security because the district has frozen individual school budgets to save money to prevent the state-operated district from running out of money before July 1, 2017.

The three false assumptions were, at best, stretches. Anderson, he said, had “seriously overestimated” the number of employees, especially expensive veterans, who would leave the district. The second “false assumption” was a “pretty significant undervaluation” of the cost of keeping literally hundreds of teachers in so-called “rubber rooms”–or, out of regular classroom assignments.

More than 400 teachers were kept on the payroll without regular assignments at a cost of some $35 million.

The third assumption was the most incredible. Anderson, said Cerf, had made a “calculated guess” about how the state would react to an appeal from her to set aside seniority rules so that she could lay off teachers at the top of the pay-scale and hire new teachers at the bottom.

Anderson had indeed sought the exemption from the seniority rules but there was never any indication it would be granted by state Education Commissioner David Hespe.

Baskerville-Richardson’s insistence that Cerf take responsibility for the looming deficit–and Cerf’s almost flippant reply–raises some interesting questions about the state’s liability for the cutback in services and instruction to the district’s 36,000 children.

Cerf not only appointed Anderson, a former New York colleague, to the Newark job, he also was state education commissioner–her direct boss–when she was developing the 2014-2015 budget that is now running in the red. He had to have played a role in its formulation. Recently, the US Department of Education concluded that Cerf, while commissioner, allowed Anderson to ignore state and federal regulations.

Cerf became the state-appointed superintendent in Newark–with a three year contract worth $257,000 annually– as a result of a deal struck between Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Baraka said Christie agreed to return control of the district to city officials–it was seized by the state in 1995.

The deal put an end to increasingly intense street demonstrations that threatened to embarrass Christie’s presidential aspirations. The governor, however, has not agreed to when the state would relinquish control–saying only he “hoped” control would be “ultimately” returned.

 

14 comments

  1. booklady

    Bob, Do you and others think this fiasco possibly resulted from Christie’s naming people–Cerf and Anderson–who did not have principal or superintendent credentials/experience?
    They held titles in Klein’s NYC Board but Cami’s accomplishment seems to have been closing high schools with childcare onsite for teen mothers.

    Cerf oversaw Anderson from her start in 2011 till February 2014. NJ DoE had a Chief Intervention Officer overseeing the state-controlled districts in 2014-15 school year. That person left.

    Sometimes I wonder what educators like Marion Bolden or Saul Cooperman think of what’s transpired in NPS.

  2. Newcomer

    “Anderson, said Cerf, had made a “calculated guess” about how the state would react to an appeal from her to set aside seniority rules so that she could lay off teachers at the top of the pay-scale and hire new teachers at the bottom.”

    “…so that she could lay off teachers at the top of the pay-scale and hire new teachers at the bottom.”

    Throughout her failed campaign to get the appeal approved, Anderson talked about her need to layoff “ineffective” teachers so she could keep “effective” teachers. However, the truth is as you stated it Bob, “…so that she could lay off teachers at the top of the pay-scale and hire new teachers at the bottom.”
    The fact that Anderson was fired was a good first step. Now she should be placed in jail, with Cerf as her cellmate.

  3. Mildly Amused

    As one of the expensive veteran former EWPS, I am proud to be the cause of a deficit growing by the minute. Where are the calculations for the bloated administrative salaries and the redundant consultants? Where is an accounting for programs run by Turnaround for Children and other so called non-profits? Where is the transparency for the outrageous expenses for charter schools? As a leader of beleaguered troops might
    Superintendent Cerf take a pay cut in favor of the cause? My school is scavenging for copy paper. Supplies are no where to be found. Student workbooks are not available in sufficient numbers. Let us not forget that our Superintendent is the Master of the Plan to create massive deficits by starving the Newark Public Schools of resources and raining misery on the One Newark children. I am honored to be an expensive veteran former EWPS and I stand by my record of devoted labor in the endeavor to educate the students placed in my care. When will former Commisioner Cerf take responsibilty for the havoc he has wreaked on the Newark Public Schools?

  4. Kate

    I love that first assumption – overestimating the number of veteran educators who would leave the district. (Which, by the way, is the same assumption as item two in different words…) in other words, “I’ll make their lives so miserable that they will leave in droves, so I can hire TFA temps at bottom salaries.”

    I notice that Cerf hasn’t said much about cutting back a few dozen upper level administrators to save some money. At nearly $200,000 annually plus benefits (and lavish catering expenses) he could save a few million without affecting the education of Newark’s students. Or he could do what was done to many Newark residents employed by NPS – abolish their positions entirely, then offer to hire them back at a substantially lower pay grade.

  5. ALLEN PATTERSON

    I believe that the community needs to file a Class Action Lawsuit against the State of New Jersey, the Governor, Commissioner of DOE, and the SAS Cerf for failure of their fudiciary (pardon the misspelling) responsibilty and failure to provide a thorough and efficent education to the non-charter students of NPS.

    • Mr. Outside

      I applaud you for that response. That is the type of strategic thinking necessary to effect actual progress. Perhaps we should consider approaching the ELC to evaluate the feasibility of such an approach.

      Historically, lawsuits have proven to be Cerf’s Kryptonite. He has a pattern of leaving his positions when his employer his confronted with a lawsuit where he is listed as a defendant.

    • Bill Wolfe

      Lawsuits are necessary but not sufficient – plus they take too much time

      We need to go back and create the street heat that caused the political crisis that led to the Baraka – Christie deal, e.g. shut it down!

      Maybe Baraka can get it right this time, although he has less leverage with Christie whose presidential ambitions are in ashes – and he’s lost a lot of the momentum built by the activists.

      Recreate the crisis.

  6. ALLEN PATTERSON

    The Education Law Center has not taken the aggressive legal steps to protect the children of NPS. We need civil rights attorneys who will have the “balls” to challenge the educational injustices in the city. Unfortunately, the mayor is too timid to stand up and make a fuss on this issue.

    Bob Braun: I, too, have been disappointed by the Education Law Center.

  7. Janet

    The deal made with Mayor Baraka was that we would get Cerf as Supt. and a team would be established to investigate and develop a plan to return NPS to local control. However, we need to consider the following:
    1. Nowhere was a timetable for local control established. It is my belief that this investigative team will develop a plan for return to local control over a ten month period BUT that this plan will be implemented over a spread of years…allowing Cerf and the rest of the charter brigade to continue to dismantle the public schools in Newark. Then, when local control is reestablished, it will be comprised of mainly charters and a public school system that is totally in shambles with the only students being those who are charter rejects (public schools teach everyone-we can’t pick and choose!).
    2.Cerf is trying to reduce Cami’s budget deficit (Maybe he should prepare a lawsuit for return of the outrageous overpayments to her consultants?) by cutting the budgets of the public schools again- we had budget cuts this past spring as well…!
    3. I do not see any mention of cutting payments to charter schools or reducing the inflated salaries of the overblown administrative staff at central office – the cuts were made in the schools where they will directly affect NPS students!
    4. When will the needs of the children of NPS come first? We educators pay out of our own pockets for our students'(our kids) supplies to a large degree…NJ budgets do not allow schools to fund breakfasts on staff development days for school staff but there is a catering budget at central office? (Maybe they should apply for the school lunch program?)

  8. Bill Wolfe

    Unreal that Cerf’s “false assumption” revelations confirmed exactly what Cami’s critics and the critics of privatization alleged: that this was all about cutting costs and boosting profits – while weakening unions and destroying democracy, allowing the corporations and gentrifiers to control events.

  9. Iqway

    Parent Associations in a few schools are interested in the law suit strategy; would the ACLU be an option? It is worth exploring

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