What is going on in Newark?
On Tuesday, the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, blasted Gov. Chris Christie for an impending 6 percent local property tax increase because of what he said was poor management of the state-operated school system, a criticism that provoked an angry response from Christie. Yet, just a day later, on Wednesday, the school board adopted the state regime’s $1 billion budget with the big tax increase potentially still there, because, said its newly elected president, Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Baraka would come up with $9.6 million to fill the budget hole–and ultimately prevent the tax increase.
And how did this fiscal miracle come to pass? No one is saying.
Is this political theater–or reality?
Keep in mind that the school board–officially entitled the Newark School Advisory Board–did not have to pass the state regime’s budget and its members Tuesday had said they wouldn’t. It could have rejected it, as it has in the past, or taken no action at all–which some board members wanted to do. But the board members apparently learned something the residents of the city did not–and, for the moment, at least, the board members are not telling the people who elected them. They voted unanimously for the spending plan. A great start for the three new members–faith-based budgeting.
Baskerville-Richardson says she cannot comment on the budget mystery.
“I’ll be able to say more later,” she said, “but I can’t say anything now.”
Frank Baraff, Baraka’s press officer, also would not comment–except to say the $9.6 million Baraka promised to fill the budget hole without increasing taxes was public and not private money. Otherwise, he said, nothing will be said–until later.
Inside the mystery of the school budget is yet another one–the continued alliance between Baraka and Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed schools superintendent who came up with the tax-exploding budget. Despite Baraka’s criticism of the state-operation of Newark’s schools, the mayor did not criticize Cerf–the man who proposed the budget that would result in the 6.35 per cent increase in Newark property taxes. Instead, he blamed Cami Anderson, the former state-appointed superintendent (hired by Cerf) who has not been in office for a year. At the same time, Cerf has called Baraka’s intervention in the budget controversy “a creative solution,” according to Politico.
None of this makes any sense. Anderson is not running the schools–Cerf is. It was his budget, not Anderson’s. Why would Baraka blast Anderson and provoke another argument with Christie on Tuesday when he must have already known he had the means, no matter what they were, to prevent a huge property tax increase? In the morning, when Baraka attacked Christie, the mayor didn’t have the $9.6 million; by the afternoon, when the board met, he did.
No. Don’t believe it.
Unless, it’s all theater. The people of Newark have been taken for an IMAX movie ride in which public officials are playing roles out in the public while real decisions are made behind closed doors. Certainly looks that way.
Cerf wanted his budget passed. Let’s say he warned the school board that, if it didn’t pass the budget, it wouldn’t look good for the district’s efforts to regain control–maybe a defiant school board would even result in a delay of return to local control. But the board members don’t want to pass a budget that has a hole in it that needs a gonzo tax increase to fill.
So, in flies superman in the guise of Ras Baraka who suddenly comes up with $9.6 million he didn’t have just hours before. The board passes the budget–contingent on that $9.6 million. Cerf is happy. the board is happy. Baraka himself has prevented the tax increase he warned would happen (although he must already have known there would be no tax increase when he issued the statement saying there would be).
And the sure-to-please-all-constituencies continuing feud between the governor of New Jersey and the mayor of Newark continues to play out in the public because the mainstream media actually buys this stuff. Some people might suspect this whole Baraka/Christie argument thing is kabuki theater at its most transparent. Good for Baraka politically that he trashes the governor; good for Christie that he trashes the mayor–especially because Christie frames his criticism of the mayor in terms of Baraka’s allegedly “pro-union” stance. Christie loves hitting public employee unions even when, as in Newark, the unions are hardly militant.
And, yet, all the time, Cerf, Christie’s man in Newark, and Baraka are holding hands under the table.
A true bro-mance. For better or for worse. For lead-tainted water. For giving away school buildings. For money siphoned off to charter schools. For selecting community schools before they’ve even applied. No way Baraka criticizes Cerf–no way Cerf criticizes Baraka. The mayor and Christie’s superintendent have reached an understanding and there’s no way the folks out in the street will know the details.
But, so where is the $9.6 million coming from? Baraff, Baraka’s spokesman, won’t say. Neither will Baskerville-Richardson.
Well–there’s the deal Baraka made with Uber, the private sort-of cab company, that’s likely to bring in some money. And City Hall sources say tax collections are up while spending is down. And we all remember, as part of the Cerf/Baraka alliance, millions of dollars in school properties have been transferred to the city. Who knows? Maybe a rich charter school bought one of them?
Baskerville-Richardson, usually an open and transparent public figure, promises all will be made clear soon–perhaps as early as Monday night. Baraff insists there really is no mystery at all and all of it will come clear.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment.