Christopher Cerf, Gov. Chris Christie’s latest whimsical choice to run the state’s largest school district, was a no-show Tuesday at his first school board meeting. Although no one on the board explained or even mentioned his absence, this site has learned the often luckless private entrepreneur and sometime public official was having a date with his wife to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
“It was planned,” said Brittany Chord Parmley about her boss’s absence. She is the public relations person for the state-operated Newark school district, brought on earlier this year when Cami Anderson, Cerf’s appointee and predecessor, actually believed she had a long future with the Newark schools. Parmley previously worked for Michelle Rhee, the disgraced former Washington DC superintendent often considered the wicked stepmother of all school “reformers,” and Arnold Schwartzenegger who is, well, who he was. Christie with pecs.
Parmley refused to say why Cerf, the Newark superintendent since July 8, would miss his much anticipated public debut as the latest state overseer of the Newark schools. Board members, however, revealed privately that Cerf had told them he had planned something special to do with his wife on the day he was supposed to introduce himself to the skeptical people of Newark to whom he has, sort of, promised a return to local control in return for a three-year contract worth $250,000 a year–about $100,000 more than he was making as state education commissioner. He had been working for Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify but that company has not done well lately.
The state has run the Newark school district, with varying degrees of failure and ineptitude, for 20 years.
“What are you going to do, complain about a guy who wants a date with his wife on their anniversary?” asked one board member.
(Which leads to the question–will Cerf, as Newark superintendent, allow all school employs to take off their wedding anniversary as a holiday? I’m for that, but somehow it seems unlikely.)
Yes, well, it’s only a billion-dollar taxpayer-funded operation that enrolls 35,000 students and employs 5,600 school employees. Led by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the city’s residents and students backed an increasingly angry resistance movement that succeeded in ousting Anderson and came close to embarrassing presidential hopeful Chris Christie by shutting down the northeast corner of the state with street demonstrations.
And, besides, Cerf needed a job.
But now that Anderson is out and the much better-mannered Cerf is in, the new superintendent–who once was state education commissioner between jobs with private corporations that have or had contracts with Newark–is easily forgiven for wanting to spend some quality time at home in Montclair, the reformy capital of the New Jersey rich.
If he had shown up, he would have been reminded of some nasty unfinished business in Newark. The president of the Newark Teachers Union, John Abeigon, was about to read a very angry statement until he learned Cerf was a no-show. He will wait until next week when, Parmley promised, scout’s honor, Cerf will show up at the regular monthly public board meeting.
Cerf also would have learned about the board’s anger that one of the state’s vaunted “reforms”–“turnaround” schools–has actually turned out to be to a royal screw-up with teachers in the same school with different schedules and entire staffs of other schools transferred out as punishment for refusing to deviate from union contracts.
“Seems punitive to me,” said board member Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson who was trying to get Vanessa Rodriguez, the district’s “chief talent officer,” to explain why so many teachers were transferred away from schools targeted for “reform” but then assigned to other schools targeted for the same “reform.”
Ariagna Perrello, the board president, all but pleaded with Rodriguez to explain why the district was breaking up the faculty at successful neighborhood schools in retaliation for the teachers’ refusal to waive provisions in their contract.
“Can’t you tell me whether you believe this strengthens or weakens neighborhood schools?” asked an obviously emotional Perello.
But Charlotte Hitchcock, the district’s lawyer who often acts as the ad hoc superintendent–Anderson wouldn’t attend meetings for 18 months–refused to allow Rodriguez to answer the question, contending she shouldn’t be required to express a personal opinion.
It’s unclear how many lawyers were in the audience Tuesday night but at least one who was there wondered why it would be illegal for the “chief talent officer”–the architect of this massive transfer plan–to answer whether she thinks it’s a good idea or not. One would think a school board member–no, president– should be able to ask the opinion of a $175,000-a-year personnel director whether she thinks she has been successful.
But not in Chris Christie’s Newark.
“It was very upsetting that she wouldn’t answer,” Perello said. “We ought to know whether she thinks it’s a good idea.”
But, as Cerf also is about to find out if he ever shows up, Rodriguez, while hell on union employees, is not the school board’s favorite state-imposed administrator. Indeed, the board members discussed how they wanted her fired and a criminal investigation begun into why her office may have allowed an ex-assistant superintendent to enjoy an illegal $12,000 leaving bonus.
Hitchcock is coming down on Rodriguez’s side on that one as well–and it will all be hashed out next week, maybe.
Cerf had the chance to come in and show he really is a fan of freeing the Newark schools from state bondage–and the opportunity to see just how badly his protégé Anderson confounded the Newark school system.
But that will have to wait. Some things are just more important than the future of tens of thousands of children, the fate of thousands of school employees, and a billion dollars in public money.