UPDATE: After ignoring my requests for information and suggesting Hespe had never heard from Hawthorne Avenue parents, Hespe’s public relations people finally sent me this today: “We’re looking into the topics / issues raised by Ms Sergio and don’t have any details at this time. When we do, we’ll be getting back to Ms. Sergio as per the Commissioner’s message to her.” Yeah, but time is running out and not making a decision is, in fact, supporting the crazy Cami Anderson plan. So, Grace Sergio, whom Hespe apparently forgot he exchanged personal emails with, responded this way to him: “Commissioner Hespe — It has been 30 days since you committed, in an email dated May 9th, to having your department rule on the above matter. Does the NJDOE support the current denial of NCLB mandated “Priority” school supports for Hawthorne Avenue School? If not, you need to notify Superintendent Anderson that she needs to immediately remove Hawthorne from her One Newark plan before the schools turns charter. If, on the other hand, you do support allowing the charter launch plan to proceed unabated, then you need to explain your rationale so that I can share this information with our parents, community and other active supporters. Thirty days has quickly passed and time is now of the essence! Any further delay will lock our parents out of the opportunity to register their children for start of the next school year. I hope that we can all count on your support in upholding what is fair and just. A favor of a prompt reply will be greatly appreciated.”
This is Bob Braun writing: Come on, commissioner, fish or cut bait. I know you well enough to know you understand the issues here. Man up–or just admit you’re afraid of crossing your boss, Chris Christie. It can’t possibly take a month to decide whether your predecessor Chris “Amplify” Cerf violated statute and regulations. And, by the way, I’m still waiting for an answer on who and when and how charter schools were allowed to violate the lottery requirement–will that take a month, too?
This is the original story:
Nearly a month ago, the parents of Newark’s Hawthorne Avenue School petitioned acting Education Commissioner David Hespe to ensure the school would not be closed without compliance with state administrative regulations that have the force of law. Hespe, a lawyer who is charged with a special obligation to uphold the law, has not only ignored the parents but he also has treated them with a contempt that raises the question whether he is fit to continue in his position.
The Hawthorne Avenue parents, like most parents of Newark school children, are black or brown and poor and accustomed to shabby treatment from the administration of Gov. Chris Christie. But this goes beyond shabby–this is treating New Jersey citizens with the sort of disrespect that might have been expected from Mississippi in 1962.
Like most of the problems plaguing the parents of Newark school children, this begins with the flawed and reckless plan by Cami Anderson to close a half-dozen schools and turn them into markets for privately-operated charter schools whose leaders have close personal and business ties both with Anderson and Hespe’s predecessor, Christoper Cerf.
One of those schools is Hawthorne Avenue, a school in the South Ward that has outpaced peer schools throughout the state in student achievement. But Anderson has promised the South Ward to TEAM Academy Charter Schools–headed by a Montclair resident named Tim Carden who was both Anderson’s colleague and friend and business partner of Cerf. Carden’s wife, Amy Rosen, helped arranged to have Anderson move to a condo in Glen Ridge. The connections are many.
Under Anderson’s “One Newark” Plan–a plan originally written by Cerf when he was a private consultant to the Newark schools, a gig he owed to former Mayor Cory Booker–Hawthorne was to become a charter school. Since that time, “One Newark” has changed the status of Hawthorne several times. Its last fate was to be both a kindergarten and first grade charter run by TEAM and a kindergarten through fourth grade school run by school entrepreneur Dominique Lee, a colleague of Anderson from Teach for America (TFA) days who runs the not terribly successful BRICK academies for Anderson. The children in grades four through eight were on their own–but parents overwhelmingly said they wanted to stay at Hawthorne with the current staff.
But wait: Under the complicated guidelines associated with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act–the federal school reform law–and its waiver (which brought federal money to the state), Hawthorne was classified as a “priority” school.
And guess what?–the state cannot close or otherwise molest a “priority” school unless it has given it the opportunity to turn around, along with support from the very expensive Regional Achievement Centers (RAC), designed by the state to help struggling schools. The state and school are subject to regulations found at NJAC 6A:33.
Regulations with the force of law. The law Hespe must follow.
In a May 7 letter to Hespe, Grace Sergio, the president of Hawthorne’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association, pointed out that, before Anderson could give Hawthorne to her friends in the charter schools, the state first had to conduct a Quality School Review (QSR), conducted by RAC staff, “to evaluate the school’s current performance and determine its needs in connection with each turnaround principle.”
Following the QSR, the regulations insist, “The department shall assign all schools identified as Priority and Focus to cooperate with the RAC within the region in which the school is located to develop and implement the school improvement plan (SIP). All Priority and Focus schools shall implement the SIP on a timeline and in a manner specified by the EDRA (Executiver Director of Regional Achievement).”
The regulations insist that “Interventions in the SIP for Priority Schools shall be closely monitored and continued for a three-year period, or until the time they exit the status as a Priority school… to provide schools time to implement required changes and demonstrate improvement in student achievement.”
Then–and only then–can the state move to close the school or fire its staff or turn it over to the charter vultures.
But–none of this happened.
The law was not followed.
Anderson, as she has done time and time again, ignored the law because she apparently believes she is above it. Hespe must believe that, too. Odd, for a lawyer.
So, what about Hespe? This is a former and present commissioner, who, according to union leaders in Newark, is so tired of Anderson playing the Queen of Mean that he is about to fire her?
Fat chance. Not only has Hespe ignored the letter from the Hawthorne parents, he even pretended he never received it.
When I tried to find out what Hespe was doing about the request from the beleaguered parents, I got this response from one of Hespe’s public relations officers:
“The Commissioner’s Office doesn’t have enough detail to track this correspondence. Nothing showed up in searches for “Hawthorne.” Could you see if you can get a name of the writer of the letter, or the date, or any other detail that can help us locate it and determine what happened. “
I provided the information requested–but was ignored anyway.
How odd that Hespe couldn’t find anything related to Hawthorne. On May 9, he personally sent this email to Sergio via the Hawthorne parent organization email:
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We will review this in the department and then discuss with the district administration and then get back to you. Dave Hespe”
The email from “Dave Hespe” was sent in response to a long series of documents from Sergio that began with:
“My name is Grace Sergio, and I am the proud president of the Hawthorne Avenue School PTSA, and I represent the 350-plus parents….”
And Hespe claims he hasn’t received anything from Hawthorne parents? Is he lying? Or does he just not care?
It’s fine that Hespe is refusing to provide me with the information I requested. I am no one in this. He will be sure to get better treatment from the fawning mainstream press. But he is showing his utter contempt for nearly 400 parents of Hawthorne Avenue children who, to this day, do not know where they will be sending their children in the fall.
I bet no one jerks around Hespe’s children–or the children of his friends. The only people who can be jerked around with impunity in this state are those who live in places like Newark, Camden, Jersey City, and Paterson.
Contempt for the poor and people of color is a disease of the Christie administration–and of many in the Legislature. State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), a senior legislator who is chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Schools, has been trying to hold hearings on “One Newark” since February and can’t get either the administration or his fellow Democrats in the Legislature to cooperate. Anderson blows him off and Christie’s puppet, Senate President Steve Sweeney, won’t give Rice subpoena power.
I realize this is a racially segregated state run by a regime that serves the elite, but how in the world can a public servant with a cabinet-level job just totally blow off hundreds of parents in Newark whose interests are protected by law and regulation? How does he pretend he never heard from them when clearly he did?
David Hespe will not be Newark’s savior. He will not be the education commissioner who gets rid of Cami Anderson and, even if she finds a job with the hedge-fund managers and other rich entrepreneurs who are her closest friends, Hespe will not end “One Newark.”
But, as a lawyer and as a sworn state official, he has an absolute obligation to comply with state law and regulations. When will he do it? When will someone force him to do it?