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.