Has Christie divided Newark opposition to Cerf and state control?

BARAKACHRISTIEThe 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.


  1. I hope that the momentum can be kept going and that as many people as possible join in the “March for Dignity” on Tuesday to protest Cerf’s appointment. I supported Ras Baraka for Mayor and I’m sure he feels that he’s doing what’s best for Newark, but I cannot simply accept Cerf as Superintendent without a fight. Let’s let Trenton, the Governor and Cerf know that after years of discriminatory treatment and lack of community input, people are not going to lie down and allow Christie to pretend that he hasn’t created a scandalous mess in Newark, one that’s hopefully going to follow him around as he campaigns! Bob, please post the exact time and place of Tuesday’s protest when available.

  2. The Newark community has been completely screwed by Christie’s shrewd manipulations. Cerf will be delighted to attend meetings to launch his charm offensive. 175 teachers will be brought up on tenure charges. EWPs will proceed on their march to oblivion. Children will continue to ride buses past neighborhood schools. Within a year, all schools will have the extended day. By the end of Cerf’s three year contract, it will be challenging to locate a Newark Public School.

  3. I can’t comprehend how Baraka went along with the appointment of Cerf AND a commission comprised of 5 Christie loyalists – who will do exactly what he wants – versus 4 of his own appointees. At a time when Newark was starting to gain traction against this state occupation (and at a time when Christie can’t afford to have a restless Newark while he tries to scam the rest of the country), Baraka retreated to a position of weakness while attempting to appease a sociopathic demagogue. (How’s that worked out historically?) I know Baraka’s heart is in the right place, but the math isn’t good, and, as we’ve seen time and time again, Christie is a smooth-talking con artist who gets what he wants and whose word is worthless. “Divide and conquer” is a great strategy for Christie, but it doesn’t bode well for the people of Newark, who need to remain united, loud and strong.

  4. In the battle for public education, Baraka is choosing the wrong side of history. Something in his career aspiration is causing him to side with the neoliberal corporate agenda of people like Cory Booker. His statement that those opposing Cerf are guilty of “paternalism” which he called “pathetic” is telling. He is aligning with Christie and accusing opponents of this move of “paternalism”? Please!

  5. Bob – you are drilling down – follow the money.

    NJ Spotlight is Foundation funded, including some of the same Foundations – like Dodge – who are pushing Charters.

    Baraka got played – and that NJSpotlight interview is no accident, not is their coverage (which is obviously more sophisticated than the Star Ledger but essentially serves the same purpose and the same masters).

    Divide and conquer is Christie’s MO – shocking that Baraka got seems to have been played.

  6. I guess they want to restore local control after they’ve made a real mess of things!

  7. Telling it like it is, huh? Ok. If that’s what we’re going to be doing, then let’s do that.

    Baraka ran a campaign singularly focused on local control of Newark’s Public Schools. Nothing else. He didn’t run a campaign focused on job creation, reducing the city’s deficit, growing the city’s infrastructure– none of that boiler plate stuff. He focused almost exclusively on local control of the schools.

    He managed somehow to lose sight of the many other issues the city facing; issues that resulted in more out-of-town oversight: a) the state taking over the city’s ball of yarn finances, and b) the justice department monitoring the city’s police force. I support Baraka. Always have. And I am supporting Baraka now. Not the office of the Mayor– but Ras Baraka. I am supporting him when I tell it like it is in the following lines. The man occupying the office of the Mayor of Newark did not anticipate the weight of managing a city like Newark– which is competing with Hoboken, Jersey City and New York City. He didn’t anticipate how far removed from grass roots politics, he would be when it came to wheeling and dealing with forces like Prudential, like “big-charter,” with federal agencies and yes, even foreign governments. It’s different as a councilman. He at once, has the burden of playing nicely in the sandbox with those whose moral, philosophical, cultural and social codes have long since been compromised, and appealing to the constituency that elected him. Ras Baraka could probably rise to the occasion. But the Mayor of Newark simply cannot. The seat of that office is an ivory tower. A prison. As the Mayor he is a pawn, to Bill Wolf’s point, who got played.

    I read that NJ Spotlight article. I was disappointed at it’s conclusion. The Mayor has allowed himself to be deluded into thinking that he arrived at some epiphany; that it became clear for him what he ought to do when Christie declared himself the decider. Somehow, Baraka thought, or continues to think, Christie backed himself into a corner. No. Christie simply affirmed his and Baraka’s position and the nature of their relationship. The Mayor of Newark is not in control. Everyone else but the Mayor is in control. The students are in control, the private interests are in control, the state is in control, the feds are in control. But not the Mayor.

    Ras Baraka has probably made the decision not to fight the battle, either at this point in time or again. I won’t speculate. The fact of the matter is, things change really quickly once you go from being a candidate behind a bullhorn to sitting behind the Mayor’s desk. The city is certainly divided. Whether he recognizes it or not, Baraka by virtue of his “settlement” or “agreement” with Christie has endorsed the governor’s position by alignment. Plainly put. With the world watching, Christie is at his most politically vulnerable. I do not understand how or why the Mayor is staying his hand, and at the same time, I again concede that it’s all a matter of perspective. However, considering the vantage points, Christie holds all the advantages.

    Ras Baraka and The Mayor of Newark can not occupy the same seat. Nor can they serve two masters. The people of Newark elected Ras Baraka on the same platform Christie is running on now. Telling It Like It Is. On the one hand, there is a man, born in Newark, who has risen to power largely on the merits of his vociferousness and his ability to connect with people, in spite of how brash he can seem; and who poised to influence the nation in ways yet unseen. On the other hand, there is another man, also born in Newark, also in power, equally as vociferous and brash also poised to influence the nation in ways yet unseen. Which is which? If we’re going to tell it like it is, I’m going to say that this is looking downright Orwellian to me.

  8. How about this – local control will be returned when there are no public schools left. Give Cerf a year or two and he will have his own New Orleans – then Christie will be gone and so will our public schools. When Christie gave up Cami it was purely a political move for his presidential bid so it was time for the Mayor and advocates to double down and take to the streets. Not capitulate and give the governor the ability to once again tout – falsely usually – his ability to cross lines and work out solutions. Baraka may think he has the secret sauce to undo state control – maybe he does and it’s a well kept secret but he undermined every community activist and now the 4 community members assigned to this new group will become complicit in his self-assured position. If he is not right he is hurting a lot of people who have as much or more at stake. Who was it talking about paternalism??

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