The chairman of the legislative committee overseeing the Newark schools has called on the state Board of Education to reject Gov. Chris Christie’s choice of Christopher Cerf as the city’s schools superintendent. State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Schools, told the board that putting Cerf, a former state education commissioner, in charge of the state’s largest district would be like “putting the fox in charge of the chickens.” Rice provided each member of the 10-member state panel with more than 50 pages of documents outlining what he called Cerf’s “questionable activities and relationships.”
“The State Board members are more than justified at this point to reject in good (conscience) the recommendation….to approve a contract for Cerf to be Newark’s Public School District superintendent. They should reject!” Rice wrote.
Rice’s letter reveals a position far different from that of Mayor Ras Baraka, who, in an interview with NJSpotlight, revealed he had made a deal–he called it a “settlement” or an “agreement”–with Gov. Christie in which the mayor agreed to allow Cerf to become the Newark superintendent if Christie would agree to help bring about eventual local control.
“It wasn’t a quid pro quo. It was more like us coming to a settlement, an agreement that they’d pick a superintendent and help us get local control,” Baraka is quoted as saying.
He was talking about a previously undisclosed meeting he had with Christie “a few weeks ago,” apparently before news about Cami Anderson’s resignation was revealed. He also admitted he also had a “very cordial” meeting with Cerf himself and found the new superintendent “conciliatory.” He indicated he would go with Cerf to a local school board meeting.
Baraka has declined a request for an interview with this site and has not answered emailed questions about Cerf. The NJSpotlight interview did not touch on Cerf’s role as a national champion of charter schools. Anderson herself had blamed the growth of charter enrollment in Newark as one of the reasons for the district’s poor fiscal and academic record.
The mayor’s comments in his interview might surprise some critics of state control who, like Rice, are demanding that the state school board reject Cerf because Cerf himself hired Andserson and determined the policies under which she closed public schools and opened new charter schools. The Alliance for Newark Public Schools, an organization that has worked hard against state control for more than a year, has called for a rally at City Hall Tuesday to protest Cerf’s appointment and to demand immediate local control of the state’s largest school district.
The alliance called for a “`March of Dignity’ to restore full local control of the Newark Public Schools and reject the appointment of Christopher Cerf as the next Superintendent. The Newark community says #No2Cerf! We need all Newark parents, teachers, students, faith leaders, elected officials, community leaders, labor leaders, to JOIN us as we continue to amplify our voices to demand our elected school board officials select the next Superintendent of the Newark Public Schools.”
Before the agreement between Baraka and Christie, the opposition to Anderson and state control had been building and unified. Now that Baraka has accepted Cerf as superintendent, it’s difficult to know how that opposition could continue at the level it had been in the last two years.
Christie, who just announced a presidential bid, may have managed with his alliance with Baraka to quiet Newark as he tries to portray himself as someone who can reach agreements with opponents. The agreement indicates it will be at least a year before a date can be set for local control–and that’s a year Christie can use to run for president without major controversies in the state’s largest city.
The elected school board last week voted to choose assistant superintendent Roger Leon as the next Newark superintendent. Baraka was present at this meeting but he has insisted he won’t focus on anything but local control, a position he repeated in his interview.
The board’s action rejecting Cerf’s appointment in favor of Leon—along with the continued opposition of the alliance and Rice to Cerf’s appointment—creates a potentially awkward and divisive situation in what had been for years a solid front of opposition to state control. In his interview with NJSpotlight, Baraka would not criticize either Cerf or the governor.
“People fundamentally have problems with Cerf, they absolutely do,” Baraka said. “Because of his history and different things. And he has to be responsible for that, he has to answer for that, he has to defend his own record. His job is not going to be a cakewalk for him in the city, and I’m sure he knows that.”
Baraka repeated his criticism of those who disagreed with his decision to reach an agreement with Christie and create a 9-member “Newark Board of Education Success” that would play some sort of role in bringing local control back to Newark after 20 years. Christie appointed a majority of the members and rejected some members recommended by Baraka. The mayor has criticized this site specifically for its opposition to Cerf’s appointment and blamed that opposition on “paternalism” which he called “pathetic.”
It’s unlikely Rice would consider his own consistent opposition to Cerf’s nomination a matter of “paternalism.” The senator attached to his letter a long history of the legal and ethical problems Cerf created for himself both as a private entrepreneur, a New York City official, and as New Jersey commissioner of education. Cerf has promoted the privatization of public education for decades and has worked for and maintained ties with American and foreign corporations seeking to make a profit from privatization–in Newark and elsewhere.
Just before he was named to be Newark superintendent, Cerf was named to the board of directors of national organization promoting charter schools. He later quit. He was part of an effort to help former Mayor Cory Booker make Newark the charter capital of the nation.
Rice has long tracked Cerf’s involvement in profit-making ventures. The documents the senator provided, for example, describe how Cerf’s “Global Education Advisers” received $500,000 to develop what became the “One Newark” plan even before Cami Anderson was named superintendent. Cerf denied he personally received any of the money. When Cerf left the state, he went to the company Amplify which had received a $2.3 million contract from Newark while he was commissioner. His office also approved the sale of the 18th Avenue School to his former business partner, Tim Carden, the head of TEAM Academy charter schools, although he insisted he had recused himself. Cerf was a trustee of the charter school.
The state school board is scheduled to meet Wednesday to accept Christie’s appointment of Cerf to run the Newark schools under a three-year contract. It won’t allow public criticism of the decision.