Here’s the core of the problem in Newark schools: Cami Anderson, Gov. Chris Christie’s agent in Newark, has the numbers that reveal how well or how poorly she is doing. No one else, including the city’s elected school board, has them. So she can make outrageous statements–like the first day of school had 90 percent attendance, as she said Tuesday night, and all the school buses ran on time–and, while everyone else believes she’s either lying or demented, or both, they have no way of disproving her.
Members of the school board–or a majority, because the panel is divided–are trying to force her to reveal the numbers, but there really isn’t much they can do. She is the “decider’s”– Christie’s–woman on the ground in Newark and she can tell the board members to shove it, which is what she often does, but nicely. Most of the time, nicely.
A number of exchanges at Tuesday’s night’s board meeting between Anderson and board members illustrate the problem. For example, after her outrageously positive description of how well the first days of school went, Philip Seelinger, a board member from Newark’s Ironbound, described how, when he toured schools the first days of school, he saw overcrowded classrooms with 35 or more students jammed into one learning space, in violation of Cami’s own policy.
Anderson, who fancies herself light on her feet intellectually, immediately saw an opening. The reason, she said, was that “there always has been overcrowding in the Ironbound” because the schools in the predominantly white and relatively prosperous neighborhood are attractive to parents. So she works very hard to shoe-horn kids into the schools and, after all, parents want siblings in the same school, so that creates a problem, too. See–choice really does matter, even more than neighborhood schools.
Her comments, understandably, created an uproar. Members of the audience shouted at her and for good reason. She managed, in her snarky way, to touch on all the divisions that have kept parents powerless to do anything about her dispersal of students throughout the city. She was exacerbating racial tensions–white versus black. Economic differences, too–relatively affluent versus the poor. At the same time, Anderson was justifying “One Newark,” showing there was a demand for “better” schools that only her plan could meet.
There was only one problem with Anderson’s clever, if venomous, reasoning–and that was described by Seelinger after the uproar quieted:
“I never got the chance to finish,” he said. “Where I saw the overcrowded classrooms, it wasn’t only in the Ironbound. It also was in the schools in the North Ward and the South Ward.”
Anderson, who, while quick with a left jab, has no staying power in the ring, became quiet. She thinks she is a lot smarter than the school board members and, when they prove to be more knowledgeable than she, she goes reeling against the ropes, making mental notes about how she can get her expensive consultants to answer that one.
Clearly, the school board members are trying to fight back, to give an alternative and more realistic narrative to refute the Cami in Wonderland story about how all parents are happy, all Renew Schools are successes, all buses run on time, and the city is on its way to becoming Happy Valley on the Passaic.
But they can’t do it without the numbers–and Anderson won’t give those numbers to the board. Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson–a board member who was president until ousted by a coup engineered by the new board president, Rashon Hasan, an Anderson ally–asked her for a comprehensive set of statistics that would reveal the condition of the schools.
She wanted the “real numbers” of students who attended school the first week. She wanted a breakdown of the cost of buses that traveled throughout the city without children in them (It’s easy to be on time if you have no passengers). She wanted all the sources of third party funding–funding that cannot be accounted for in the usual way. She wanted the numbers of teachers and administrators wasting away at taxpayers’ expense in Newark’s rubber rooms.
Anderson, in his dismissive way, said she would get the numbers “if they are available and, if they are not, I will provide explanations.”
“I’m not interested in explanations,’ said Baskerville-Richardson. “I want the numbers.”
Exclusive possession of the numbers allows Anderson to depict her success to the only audience she cares about–Christie. Because Christie only cares about showing to the rest of the state and, now, as a presidential candidate, the rest of the country, that he is the tough guy who faced down “those” people in Newark–the people of color, the unions, the restive poor, all those enemies of the Republicans.
He wants to show the people of South Carolina that, well, if he can pacify Newark, imagine what he can do in the Middle East–real presidential material, this rotund “Newark guy.” And he needs Anderson to keep cooking those numbers and tools like David Hespe to keep her in office despite the cost to his reputation for integrity. Christie is not trying to persuade anyone in Newark; he doesn’t give a damn about Newark, except as a slogan–“I am the decider.” He wants to be seen throughout the nation as the great white master, bringing light and order to the masses.
The media play a big role by failing to play any role at all. Cami Anderson already owns the heart of what’s left of the only statewide newspaper, The Star-Ledger, as does Christie, so her portraits of “reform” won’t be challenged there–they are all “bold and sensible” moves, according to a numbingly repeated newspaper refrain. But most of what she says is intended for outside media whose representatives often only think of Newark as a place with an airport, a Budweiser brewery, a sports arena and, away from Broad Street, a lot of people who don’t look like them. She has conned NJTV and NPR and Brian Lehrer. The only real challenge comes from the students who are willing to pull off demonstrations and get their bones broken–creating scenes that attract the television cameras from New York and show all is not well in Happy Valley.
But the board continues to try. Today, the board will step up its effort to show the absurdity of Anderson’s depiction of Newark. Four members–five would be a quorum and they would have to go through all the formalities of an official meeting–will hold a 5 pm news conference at City Hall to repeat their demands for the truth.
Good luck, school board. Truth isn’t part of Cami’s narrative. She can’t handle the truth.