By Becca Fields
I admire and respect Mayor Ras Baraka. From the first time I spoke with him, I heard a leader, a man of deep thought and action. Then a high school principal, Baraka demonstrated commitment, intelligence, and a depth of understanding of the challenges facing not just Newark public schools, but the entire city. And he clearly demonstrated his willingness to look for solutions “outside the box” and beyond the expected as he demonstrated by meeting with gang leaders as part of his strategy to curb violence.
So I write this with some trepidation. I want Mayor Baraka to succeed. I want Newark Public schools to succeed. I want Cami Anderson gone. I want to see the school system come out of state control, reverse the accelerated path towards privatization, end the chaos of moving students all over the city. I want to see Newark schools under the control of the elected school board whose members can refocus on neighborhood schools that are good for our children and our neighborhoods.
But I write because I do not see that Mayor Baraka is strategically fighting against the state control and destruction of the public schools. Indeed, after nearly six months in office, I am no longer waiting to see his strategy but rather more fearful that he does not have one at all.
When he came into office, he had the opportunity to support the boycott of One Newark and the alternative of Freedom schools. But he remained largely silent on the issue and offered no open signs of support towards the efforts. In September, the Mayor said he would give the plan 10 days to see how the year started. After 10 days, when there was so much wrong, there was no reaction that suggested a plan when the warning was given. It was an empty threat that only increased the cavalier disrespect by state officials of the city’s new mayor.
In October, the Mayor released a public letter to the President of the United States asking for intervention. My hope was that there had been private conversations ensuring such a letter would result in Presidential action. But there was silence – a deafening and power-draining silence.
And, most recently, the Mayor released a letter to Acting Commissioner Hespe asking for intervention at Barringer High School – the flagship of Cami Anderson’s failure since day one of the school year. Students without books, schedules, appropriately qualified teachers, heat and food have plagued the two academies since September.
Is the expectation that the Commissioner, after seeing the President does not want to intervene, will question the authority of the state appointed superintendent who is confident the issues at Barringer have all been addressed?
None of these actions makes much sense, no matter how justified and correct in terms of content and need. In total, they suggest a lack of a long term, sustained strategy of escalation to take back Newark schools while they still exist.
If letter writing and pointing out flaws in the press were effective strategies, One Newark would have been defeated before it ever was implemented. Giving 10 days to see the problems with One Newark was generous, but only effective if there was to be a swift and decisive action at the end of the observation period.
Asking the Acting Commissioner to intervene is certainly a classic case of the fox being asked to guard the hen house.
Parents, students, education professionals and community leaders are looking to the mayor for leadership. They are offering venues and opportunities for him to speak out and take a stand. Indeed there have been opportunities for the Mayor to march in the streets with his supporters united against One Newark and state control. Mayor Baraka comes from a family whose members know well what civil disobedience is, how it is used and how it can make a difference when acting within the boundaries of diplomacy and politics, or pen to paper prove ineffective.
The mayor has many responsibilities to the people of Newark – the budget deficit, the continuing violence, the need for jobs, and the public schools are just a few. I understand that the Mayor might have held back his protests at first to secure necessary state aid and prevent a fiscal agent overseeing his city budget.
But time is passing and One Newark is ripping apart the fiber of the Newark community further and further every day it is allowed to continue. Students with special needs are not being cared for. Students getting to school are in danger and being hurt. In school, students have been neglected and injured. Most tragically a student been murdered, under the negligence of state control.
With insufficient funds and staffing we see that our children are suffering. It is time for the mayor to lead. We need the mayor to have a well thought out, decisive, escalating, long –term, strategic plan that uses every power available to the city’s top leader and galvanizes parents, students, educators and the community behind his leadership. We need bold action that pushes the boundaries of the expected to take back Newark schools and restore sanity to the communities they are to serve.
I have no doubt this mayor knows how to implement a plan within a classroom and a school. Now it is time to put such a plan into place for the district and the city before it is too late.
Becca Fields is the pseudonym of a community activist