The last meeting of the elected Newark school board erupted in boos and catcalls when state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson stormed off the stage, closely followed by her senior staff. The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at the Rafael Hernandez school in the North Ward and, already, tension is building—with the board president saying Anderson should expect “outrage” in the face of her attitude toward the city’s residents.
“State superintendent Anderson: You own this situation. For the third year in a row, you have forced your plans on the Newark community without the measure of stakeholder input that anyone, lay or professional, would consider adequate or respectful,” wrote Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the board president. She called on Anderson, appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, to impose a moratorium on her plan—called “One Newark”– to close neighborhood public schools and expand charters—or resign.
“You are obviously painfully aware of the depth and breadth of community discontent,” Baskerville-Richardson wrote.
It is a measure of the gulf between Anderson and the board that each has a different name for the panel. The board refers to itself as the “Newark Board of Education” while Anderson refers to it as the “School Advisory Board,” or SAB. When the state took over the district in 1995, the law it invoked change the traditional name of the board.
The board is elected–but it has virtually no power. It is powerless to stop Anderson’s “One Newark” plan.
The latest exchange between the board and Anderson was provoked by a letter from Charlotte Hitchcock, the attorney for the school administration, to the board president. She cited the uproar at the last meeting—Jan. 28—and suggested Baskerville-Richardson was at fault for failing to control the audience, many of whose members spoke out against Anderson and her “One Newark” plan.
“On behalf of the District, I am writing to respectfully request your cooperation to ensure that the appropriate decorum and adherence to District policy are met during the upcoming School Advisory Board Meetings (SAB) and thereafter,” Hitchcock wrote.
“In particular, I draw your attention to the inability for the Superintendent to present her presentation to the audience at the last two SAB meetings due to continual inappropriate behavior caused by several audience members. Such conduct rendered it impossible for any member of the community to receive information about the District directly from the Superintendent.
“As is the distinct design and purpose of the SAB meetings, it is the opportunity for the community to learn from the Superintendent about the plans and course of activity for the District. Thus, within your role as Board Chair, I encourage you to fulfill your responsibility, to the best extent possible, to maintain order and an environment whereby all voices and perspectives may be shared in a respectful manner.”
About two hours into the meeting, a Newark parent, Natasha Allen, referred to “brown babies” and asked Anderson whether she didn’t want for her child what Newark parents wanted for theirs. Anderson, the mother of an inter-racial child, reacted angrily and walked off the stage. Baskerville-Richardson kept the meeting going. Baskerville-Richardson said the walkout was planned:
“You made no attempt to make your presentation at the January 28th meeting. You chose to walk off the stage and exit the meeting prior to your presentation. Based on the precision with which you and senior staff abandoned the meeting, it was obvious that you planned to walk out of the meeting and that you simply chose the first opportune moment to do so,” Baskerville-Richardson wrote
She accused Anderson of scheduling the meeting at a school-First Avenue—that did not have enough room to fit the expected large crowd. She accused he superintendent of forcing residents to stand outside in sub-freezing temperatures and failing to provide television feeds for the meeting.
“Given the scenario that the Newark community has experienced under your reign, how can you expect a reaction any different than outrage? How can you have the best interests of children at heart when you exclude their parents from the planning and decision making process? How can you expect anything other than to be compared to your boss, Governor Christie, or for your actions to be compared to the aggressive bullying that the governor is famous for, exemplified in his ‘I control Newark schools, not them’ remark?
“I must ask the same question that others have attempted to ask you, with the hope that it will be accepted in the context in which it is asked: What would your reaction be, if you were removed from the decision making process about your child’s education?”
She cited the number of police officers in the auditorium, outside in the hallways and behind the stage curtains as evidence Anderson knew residents were angry. She demanded to know who paid for the police—the school district, the city or “another funding source.”
She concluded: “I look forward to the day when we can concentrate on policies and progams that directly benefit our children. The rift between you and the Newark community can be resolved in one of two ways: a moratorium on the One Newark plan, followed by a process of inclusive comprehensive planning, or your departure from the Newark public schools district.”
The next meeting is not expected to be any calmer. Anderson is expected to push ahead with her plan—with some revisions. One of them is potentially explosive—layoffs of teachers to “right-size” the district. She indicated she would ask for a waiver, available under state law, to bypass the seniority rights of teachers so she can retain younger teachers, many of whom were hired through the Teach for America (TFA) program she once led. She also is expected to hire new teachers despite the layoffs—and many of them are expected to come from TFA.