A delegation of some 25 political, union, civil rights, and religious leaders is scheduled to meet Wednesday with “senior officials” of the US education department in an effort to force federal intervention in the state-operated Newark school district. The trek to Washington, DC, was announced with rhetoric invoking the city’s and the nation’s history of both racial discrimination and the discord it provoked. The leader of the delegation, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), compared the current climate to 1967, a year marked by bloodshed in the streets of Newark and other cities.
“Somebody has got to pay attention,” said Rice, who was joined at a City Hall press conference by many of those scheduled to go to the meeting arranged by US Rep. Donald Payne Jr (D-10). He spoke of the 50th anniversary of the marches on Selma and the need to keep pressure on public officials to restrain the policies of state-appointed schools superintendent Cami Anderson.
“To be silent is suicide,” Rice added. The legislator described his frustrations in trying to persuade state officials to conduct investigations into Anderson’s operations, including what he said were “possible criminal actions,” among them the sale of public school property, the 18th Avenue School, to a for-profit company whose principals had past associations with Anderson and former state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
Just who will meet with whom was left open. Initially, at least some of the delegation was expected to meet with Arne Duncan, the federal education secretary and a supporter of Anderson in the past. Rice only said he would be meeting with “senior” officials but promised it would not be the last trip to Washington if the session was not satisfactory. The senator said he might demand a meeting with the “White House.”
Also it had been expected Mayor Ras Baraka would be part of the delegation but he said at the press conference he would be represented by his chief education advocate, Dr. Lauren Wells. “I am fighting on many fronts here,’’ the mayor said. Baraka already has written a letter to President Barack Obama seeking federal intervention to stop Anderson but received no response—or, at least, no response the mayor or the president has made public.
In his opening remarks, Baraka chided the press for concentrating on the problems facing his administration while ignoring the problems in the school system. He called it “mind-boggling” that the city’s deficit has received so much attention “but the schools have a superintendent who has had a deficit every year since she’s been here.” Gov. Chris Christie appointed Anderson in 2011.
“They make excuses for this woman,” he said of the press coverage. “She gets a raise at the same time she is laying off teachers.” Referring to The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper that recently moved its offices out of Newark, Baraka said, “I’m starting to believe she has a fairy godfather or fairy godmother over there.”
The trip comes at a sensitive time. State Education Commissioner David Hespe last week awarded Anderson another year’s contract plus a small raise despite her failure to attend public meetings and the decline in test scores in the city. Anderson has generally refused to conduct public meetings of any sort, and stood up Rice’s Joint Committee on Public Schools three times before finally agreeing to appear in January.
“This is probably the first time in the history of New Jersey that a superintendent of a school district has simply disrespected and been insubordinate to the state Legislature by refusing to meet her contractual and statutory responsibility to appear and answer questions when requested,” Rice said.
Her reappointment “only solidifies our belief that the state will continue to turn a blind eye to the problems that students are experiencing in the district,” Rice said. Because the state has refused to act, he said, “We have been forced to turn to the federal government for assistance.’’
The various members of the delegation will concentrate on different issues, according to sources on the panel. For example, Trish Morris Yamba, the former executive director of the Newark Day Care center, will speak about Anderson’s plans to add early childhood to students to the so-called “One Newark” scheme that disperses children around the city.
“You can’t be putting those kids on a bus and sending them around the city,” she said.
Deborah Smith Gregory, the president of the Newark NAACP, said the group would report back on the result of the meeting. She said the current regime in Newark schools is maintaining a segregated system under the pretense of “choice.”
“Separate but unequal has a new look, but it is still separate but unequal,” she said.
The other members of the delegation include:
-David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.
-Dr. Leonard Pugliese, executive director, City Association of School Administrators (CASA).
-Bishop Jethro James, chairman of the Newark-North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen.
-State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
-Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), co-chair, Joint Committee on Public Schools.
-Dr. Mary G. Bennett, chair, Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools.
-Roberto Cabanas. Lead organizer, NJ Communities United.
-Kristin Towkaniuk, president, Newark Students Union.
-Joseph Del Grosso, president, Newark Teachers Union.
-John Abeigon, executive director, Newark Teachers Union.
-Rufus Johnson, Essex County freeholder.
-Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, (D-Essex).
-Assemblywoman Cleo Tucker, (D-Essex).
-Dr. Donna Johnson-Thompson, director, Newark Day Care Center.
-Rev. Mamie Bridgeforth, Newark Clergy Alliance.
-Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Essex).
-Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex).
-Raymond Ocasio, CEO, La Casa Don Pedro.
-James Harris, education chair, NJ Black Issues Convention.
-Hillary Shelton, senior vice president, National NAACP Washington Bureau.