Newark’s public schools face a “crisis,” says the congressman representing New Jersey’s largest city, but its leadership “lacks the ability” to improve them and, instead, has imposed a “critically flawed” plan that, in fact, limits student performance. “I am deeply concerned about the state of education in Newark and its children, who are seeing their educational opportunities eroded under the guise of school reform,” wrote U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., in a letter to state-appointed Newark school superintendent Cami Anderson. Payne had once been Anderson’s ally.
The letter, dated Friday, is the latest and, in some ways, most egregious political gaffe committed by the tone-deaf Anderson, once a political operative for former mayor—now US Sen.—Cory Booker. It’s an extraordinary example of how just plain stupid Anderson can be.
By hiring a woman who served as publicist for both former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michelle Rhee, the disgraced former Washington, DC, superintendent, Anderson has tried to mount a charm offensive showing just how successful and, well, human, she is. The latest efforts by flack Brittany Chord Parmley, however, have exploded in Anderson’s face like trick cigars—most notably an effort to woo a positive story from the Washington Post that ended up as an embarrassment to the man who might be Anderson’s only supporter—Gov. Chris Christie.
Parmley gave the Washington Post reporter the names of prominent people who would support her—and a number of them told the journalist the opposite of what Anderson thought they would say.
For example, Rev. Edwin Leahy, for more than 40 years the headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep School in Newark, was long considered an ally of both Booker and Anderson. But Leahy described her “reform” efforts as “a bunch of white people who have a lot of money from outside the city who are imposing their view on what should be going on for people of color in the city. It’s a bad model.”
The Post headline was “Christie’s bold plan to remake public schools is running into trouble.”
Not exactly what Christie wanted to see as he campaigned for president. Ironically, Chord Parmley’s husband Paul works for Michael DuHaime, Christie’s chief political strategist.
What role Parmley played in another Anderson boo-boo–her falling out with Payne– is unclear. What is clear is that Anderson and her people handled it like bungling amateurs.
Payne, in his first term after taking over his late father’s seat in New Jersey’s 10th Congressional district, had initially written Anderson a letter Feb. 27, 2014, posing a number of softball questions that a candidate for student council president could have knocked out of the park. Instead, Anderson ignored the letter.
At that time, Payne was under pressure from local pols to make a decision on the Newark mayoral race—a contest he was expected to enter, and win, if he had not gone to Washington to replace his father. An old friend and supporter, Ras Baraka, a city councilman, was running against a candidate of New Jersey machine politics—and an Anderson supporter—Shavar Jeffries. If friendship counted, Payne should have backed Baraka, the principal of Central High School and son of the iconic poet and playwright Amiri Baraka.
But Payne, doing the right thing politically—most people expected Baraka to lose badly because Jeffries had all manner of “reform” money—meant endorsing Jeffries, just 19 days after he wrote the letter to Anderson. If Anderson had even a clue about politics, she would have answered Payne’s letter immediately to help him.
Instead, the $300,000-a-year klutz never answered the letter at all. Baraka, exploiting the animosity so many residents felt about the interloping Anderson, won a surprise victory although he was outspent 10 to one by Jeffries and his pro-charter oligarch supporters.
So, after waiting 14 months, Payne wrote the second letter and this one wasn’t nearly so friendly as the first.
“Your failure to respond and to engage in a meaningful dialogue on behalf of all Newark students is very disappointing to my constituents and me,” Payne wrote. He demanded a “detailed and thorough” response.
“There is a crisis situation going on in Newark,” he wrote.
Anderson’s response only made things worse. She responded, not in a matter of days or months, but hours, and she opened her letter with:
“Thank you for bringing to my attention that you have experienced some difficulty in reaching my office. Your experience is by no means intentional, and must be the result of miscommunication between systems. I’m very sorry for the frustration this caused and wanted to make sure you know how to reach my office directly in the future.”
What does that mean? Especially the part about whether Payne’s experience—rather than Anderson’s arrogance—was “intentional” or not.
Of course, it was intentional.
Although she is the Newark school superintendent and required by law to attend school board meetings, she has refused for the last 14 months to attend the monthly sessions. She stopped going to meetings just as Payne was drafting his first letter. She also refused four invitations to appear before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools—despite the committee’s statutory role in monitoring her tenure. After three years of sticking it to the Legislature, she finally agreed to appear under the threat of a subpoena—and gave the committee virtually no useful information.
That committee, by the way, is run by another prominent African-American politician, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex). She has a habit of kicking dirt in the faces of the most prominent black leaders in the state. Rice, after trying to get her to answer his questions, accused Anderson of “taking the Fifth”—avoiding answers because of possible incrimination.
But that’s not the only problem with Anderson’s hastily-written and all but incomprehensible letter to Payne. Instead of answering the questions posed in the two letters, she resorts to the wonkishly obscure and patronizing—“I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with you around public education for our children in Newark and across New Jersey.”
Then she throws some stale—and disputed—talking points at the congressman. For example, she says the district “added 1,000 pre-K seats and the majority of families eligible for free pre-K are now enrolled.”
But Payne hadn’t asked about that. He wanted to know about her so-called “One Newark” plan that closed public schools, expanded charters, and dispersed children all over the city without proper transportation. The Newark schools got the pre-K enrollment only because the feds cut off a community-based pre-school program and sent the money to Anderson. And, of course, she doesn’t mention that many preschool children have been placed in inappropriate buildings, built for much older kids.
Although the statewide school report card showed performance scores falling for Newark students under her tenure, she insisted in the letter that scores went up–because she has decided that, despite their use against teachers, using test scores to judge her performance, is like” comparing appeals and rocks.” She also included bizarre findings that only a flack could love—that, for example, “The Brookings Institute recently named NPA the #3 district in the country for the quality and the diversity of school choices.”
So much for unthinking think tanks. Like everyone is rushing to enroll their children in Newark because the Brookings Institute naively crunches some numbers and comes up with that ridiculous judgment.
Payne hadn’t asked about any of that. He wanted to know why she was giving so much money and other resources to city’s privately-operated charter schools. He wanted to know why the charter schools skimmed the top of the Newark student pool. He wanted to know “what arrangements will be made to ensure the safe and affordable transportation of students who are forced to travel across town to school due to closing of their local school.” He wanted to know why she continued to expand charter enrollments when that was clearly weakening public schools by taking away students–and thereby increasing costs in the public schools while decreasing per student state aid payments.
Good questions all—and they go to the heart of her “One Newark” plan.
And she didn’t answer one. Not one.
Ok, so let’s recap. The Congressman representing the people of Newark sends a letter on Feb. 27, 2014 to Cami Anderson asking for a little love and a little help so he has political cover for endorsing Shavar Jeffries. She ignores him, embarrassing him in front of a lot of local pols.
Then, more than a year later, he asks the same questions again—and she responds with gobbledygook that all but dismisses him as someone unworthy of a thoughtful response. She blames “miscommunication between systems” for her own rudeness and says his experience was “by no means intentional,” a phrase that is like an axe taken to the English language.
Nothing will happen to Anderson because of this blatant act of disrespect and stupidity. She is protected by the only politician who–for now, at least– matters in New Jersey, Chris Christie, the only New Jersey governor ever to remove an African-American from the state Supreme Court. And, because she is protected by a bully-buffoon like Christie, she can get away with showing disrespect to anyone, including–and, maybe, most especially–elected leaders of color.
Whatever else is going on inside her head, it’s impossible not to conclude she gets her kicks from putting down people like Payne, Rice, and Baraka.
But does anyone out there think about how her befuddlement with easy concepts plays in the administration of Newark schools?
If she doesn’t get what she should have done in response to Payne’s letter, an easy call, how can anyone expect her to run the schools well?
Well, no one does. But that doesn’t matter. Not if you’re one of Christie’s own.