Newark’s state-appointed school superintendent Christopher Cerf set out last night to smear–and maybe destroy–the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), contending its leaders had “taken the fifth” to keep information away from a judge. The lawyer representing the union immediately denounced what Cerf said, contending his statement was “absolutely, utterly and, probably, knowingly, false.”
Cerf’s comments came after a long and raucous meeting during which the school board ended years of resistance to state control and–under apparent pressure from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka– supported the superintendent’s controversial plan to transfer 12 properties to the Newark Housing Authority.
The political victory may have gone to Cerf’s head because he ended the meeting with his attack on the union and an entity–the Supplemental Fringe Benefit Fund (SFBF), a joint union/management operation–that has been dispensing health benefits to NTU members for 45 years.
Cerf, clearly out to destroy the fund and the union’s influence on benefits, unilaterally announced last month that he would end the contract between the fund and a service provider, GPP, it chose and give it to Benecard, a politically-connected firm founded by Doug Forrester, a Republican candidate for governor and US senator. The firm was recommended by another politically-connected brokerage, Connor Strong Buckelew, that is headed by South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross III, an ally of Gov. Chris Christie.
The union won a temporary restraining order from Superior Court Judge Donald Kessler Jan. 29 who ordered Cerf to keep GPP . The judge said he wanted a hearing to determine whether the benefits provided by Benecard would be substantially similar to those provided by GPP.
Cerf began his discussion by declaring victory in the court action–which hasn’t yet yielded a decision–and calling the union’s position “grotesque.” He then said–twice–that the union had refused to turn over documents and said the NTU had invoked its Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Clearly implying the union was trying to hide something, Cerf said the union’s position “had to make your nose twitch.”
Ryan DiClemente, a Princeton attorney handling the case for the union, was clearly angered by the remarks.
“The case has not definitely been decided,” he said, “and in no way, under no circumstances, has any party invoked the Fifth Amendment.”
DiClemente said he–and any party to the continuing litigation–could not discuss the details of the case but said both parties had been engaged in discussions in the judge’s chambers over “discovery,” the process which the sides in a dispute request information from each other. Cerf was not present for the discussions so apparently formed his impression of what happened in the private meetings from representatives of the school board’s law firm, Riker Danzig .
DiClemente said lawyers for the parties and the judge also discussed “protective orders” that would keep confidential the health information of the 4,000 NTU members now held by GPP but demanded by Benecard.
Cerf, who is a lawyer, knows the difference between protective orders and the Fifth Amendment, a constitutional provision normally associated with criminal prosecution, not civil suits.
But the state-appointed schools chief is clearly after more than a change in service providers. Both his comments–and his efforts to destroy the operation of the SFBF–indicates he is trying to destroy the union as a viable operation.
Earlier in the meeting, NTU President John Abeigon had addressed the board and called repeatedly for Cerf to resign.
“We don’t want you here–we don’t need you,” Abeigon said.