Not a great day for Cami Anderson. The chairman of the legislative committee that oversees state-operated school districts Tuesday accused the state-appointed Newark superintendent of “taking the fifth” because she repeatedly refused to discuss her personal and business ties to a Newark charter school leader to whose organization she sold a Newark public school at less than fair market value. Anderson also was openly caught in a lie when she insisted before the Joint Committee on Public Schools (JCPS) that no school principals were in so-called “rubber rooms,” getting paid to do nothing–apparently unaware one of the principals was attending the hearing. She also was openly laughed at by committee members when she talked about a “legislative liaison” aide whom none had ever met.
But the oddest thing that happened at the four-hour hearing was Anderson’s insistence that her reforms efforts should not be judged by falling state test scores because such scores were “inaccurate” and “unfair”–this, from a woman who has closed public schools and fired educators because of falling state test scores.
Anderson, a woman who has shown nothing but smug contempt for critics, was reduced to offering what amounted to personal pleas that the legislators try to “understand my journey”or “my passion”–mawkish and overplayed efforts to depict herself as someone whose past helped her understand the problems of poor people. In the end, she had to be rescued after four hours by state Education Commissioner David Hespe who told the committee Anderson had had enough for one day and should be allowed to leave.
Hespe wasn’t a witness. He wasn’t even supposed to be there. He was a sort of a minder–or, maybe, big brother– to hold Anderson’s hand (figuratively) while legislators from both parties relentlessly asked questions that demonstrated they failed to understand her genius and couldn’t give a damn about her journey through life and her passion for education. After her ordeal ended, Anderson refused to answer reporters’ questions and all but fled the committee room, chased by television cameras shining bright lights.
The day was clearly an embarrassment for her–and for Gov. Chris Christie who has held her up as a symbol of his devotion to what he calls “school reform.”
Never in the nearly four years that Anderson, once a political operative for former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, has run the Newark schools for Christie has she appeared so cowed, so unable to respond to criticism. So ridiculous. And, this time, she couldn’t throw a hissy fit and storm out or have her critics thrown out of the room by school security.
The day started out well for her. She came with a large retinue of well-paid aides and a screen where she could display her PowerPoint presentation about Newark “On the Move.” State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), the JCPS chairman, insisted she limit herself to a five-minute opening statement. But Anderson ignored him and spoke for 24 minutes, praising her accomplishments, often to the accompaniment of some Newark residents shouting “Liar” and “Not true.”
The first sign the day would not go as planned for Anderson came when state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) began asking questions. “I am so angry,” said Ruiz, and explained how she had worked “day after day” trying to help Newark families, her constituents, find seats in public schools that had been closed to families because of Anderson’s botched “One Newark” enrollment plan.
Anderson tried to avoid the implications of Ruiz’s questioning by blaming the chaos and unhappiness of parents on demand for traditionally strong schools–but Ruiz was having none of it and the senator, the head of the Senate Education Committee, barely concealed her contempt for Anderson.
Ruiz’s attack on Anderson could have serious implications for the Newark superintendent whose contract must be renewed in June. Ruiz is closely aligned with Essex County Joseph DiVincenzo who, in turn, is one of Christie’s poodles despite a voter card which shows him to be a Democrat.
Republicans, predictably, tried to defend Anderson–Christie’s choice–but even their hearts clearly were not in trying to defend a woman who came across as such a friendless loser. State Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex) praised Anderson for her efforts but thought that, if she wanted to be a public official, she had to “develop a thicker skin.”
His half-hearted defense of Anderson provided a light moment when he asked her if she had a “legislative liaison,” an aide who would stay in touch with lawmakers on such important committees as the JCPS or Ruiz’s education committee. When she replied, “Yes,” all the legislators instantly looked quizzically at each other and then laughed–because no one had even met him or her. Anderson, whose top aides make more than most school superintendents in New Jersey, did not offer to identify the reclusive liaison officer.
The best–and, probably, most telling moment–was provided by Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), a former Essex County schools superintendent. Caputo was grilling her on a number of topics, including so-called “EWPS”–or educators without placement. These are men and women who are dismissed from their schools, usually because of one of Anderson’s reform efforts, but can’t be fired because they are tenured and have done nothing wrong. At one point last year, more than 400 teachers and, perhaps, dozens of school administrators, were EWPS, educators receiving full salaries but doing nothing.
In the exchange between Caputo and Anderson about EWPS, flatly denied there were “rubber rooms”–a colloquial term given to offices where unassigned but fully paid educators spend their days. She also denied there were principals in “rubber rooms.”
Tony Motley, the former principal of the Bragaw Avenue School, happened to be in the audience. He is a principal in a rubber room–it’s actually Room 904 at 2 Cedar Street where, he says, he spends his days working on his doctoral dissertation and doing nothing else for his full salary. His school–Bragaw Avenue–was turned over to Anderson’s friends in the charter movement and so he lost his job.
Some time after Caputo’s round of questioning ended, he learned about Motley’s presence in the Statehouse committee room and asked if there were any principals assigned to rubber rooms in the audience. Motley stood up and waved to the committee members. Anderson, clearly upset, insisted she hadn’t lied–and spoke emotionally about her “integrity.”
Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), the former Assembly speaker and U.S. senate candidate, spent a great deal of her questioning time warning Anderson to get over herself and to drop her “attitude.” She told Anderson she should not consider herself the “sharpest tool in the shed.”
Oliver was joined by Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) in wondering aloud how Anderson could refuse to attend Newark school board meetings and remain as Newark superintendent. The two legislators repeatedly raised the issue of Anderson’s failure to show leadership in boycotting meetings of her own school board.
Anderson was surprisingly unprepared for the hearing. Known for her ability to pull figures out of the air to support any position she takes, the Newark superintendent could not, for example, say how many teachers in Newark were teaching outside their certification–although that is a statistic she should have. She couldn’t tell how many EWPs there were. She was vague about transportation statistics. She made an odd comment about how “people in the district” wanted to go “the New Orleans route” and make all schools charter schools–a comment that came as a surprise to even school board officials who didn’t know that was ever contemplated. She couldn’t remember the last time she attended a public board meeting (it was January, 2014) and she couldn’t say how much money was spent on EWPS.
And she made no sense whatever in her discussion of statewide test scores, especially among the so-called “Renew Schools.” These schools–in which principals were given great autonomy, teachers were transferred out, and the school day was lengthened–were at the core of Anderson’s reform efforts.
She had predicted children in the “Renew Schools” would reach 50 percent proficiency on statewide tests in two years. It turns out the scores came in far under her goals. Earlier, she blamed the declines on charter schools “skimming” better-performing students. At the JCPS hearing, however, she took a different tack–questioning the validity of the statewide test scores themselves, something she had never done before, at least not publicly. She went on at length about the problems children faced–including mobility and economic deprivation–basically repudiating much of her own oft-stated philosophy that children’s circumstances should not be blamed for failure. Anderson was, in effect, making the arguments most of her critics have made against her reform efforts.
Her nerves clearly were frayed–and that’s when Rice, the JCPS chairman, began asking about the so-called “Pink Hula Hoop.” The state senator has tried for a year to get answers about how and why Anderson arranged to sell the 18th Avenue School to a profit-making corporation–actually PinkHulaHoop1 LLC-that was a profit-making front for the TEAM Academy Charter schools. Anderson, Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney have stonewalled Rice’s efforts–and his frustrations showed.
The story is a complex one and involves past business associates and current friends of Anderson–and of former Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. It also involved the state Economic Development Authority (EDA), which provided money for TEAM Academy. Rice says he believes the sale of the school may have been designed to help out Anderson’s and Cerf’s private associates.
When he began questioning Anderson on her ties to Tim Carden, a former EDA member who heads some of the corporations involved in buying the property, Anderson just repeated how she followed normal procedures for the sale of the land. Rice repeated his questions and Anderson repeated her mantra about following procedures. She wouldn’t answer the increasingly frustrated senator’s questions.
That’s when Rice accused Anderson of “taking the fifth”–citing the practice of some persons in danger of criminal prosecution of refusing to answer questions based on the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Apparently, the questions got to Anderson–and to Hespe, who jumped into the conversation and demanded Rice end the hearing. That didn’t please Rice who said he was trying to keep Hespe out of the controversy but, he told the commissioner, “You had to open your mouth.” Rice then told of how Hespe had promised last year that he would help resolve the “Pink Hula Hoop” controversy before a decision was made on Anderson’s contract. Rice also revealed Hespe had promised to deliver Anderson to a JCPS hearing–but she blew off three invitations.
That’s when Anderson fled the room, chased by cameras.
Rice said he wouldn’t give up. He and other members demanded scores of documents–ranging from lists of consultants Anderson hired to the number of people getting paid to do nothing. He would have more hearings, he said–and he would continue to demand subpoena power for his committee.
“I’m not giving this up,” he said.