Years of resistance to the state masters of Newark’s schools collapsed last night in a stunning show of the political power of the new alliance between state-appointed superintendent Christopher Cerf and Ras Baraka, the mayor whose election was due almost solely to his opposition to state control and his support from employee unions. The elected school board voted 6-2 to approve Cerf’s giveaway to the city of millions of dollars in school property–a plan endorsed by the mayor.
Board members who, for years, had nothing good to say about Cerf and who, just last week, criticized the property plan, supported Cerf. They included members like Marques Aquil-Lewis, Phil Seelinger, Crystal Fonseca and board chair Ariagna Perello, men and women who had demanded Cerf’s resignation more than once.
The vote came late in the meeting and was accompanied by jeers of activists who cried “sell-out” and “conflict” as the board, with its new and ill-fitting political stripes, first beat back an effort to table the transfer of property–and then voted to approve it.
The only two board members to vote against the transfer were Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson and Donald Jackson. Dashay Carter, who had spoken sharply against the plan at an earlier meeting, abstained. She is an employee of the Newark Housing Authority and said she had a “conflict.”
And that’s at the core of this ignominious defeat of what had once been a brave band of board members who resisted the state’s control for years–four of the board members work for City Hall or one of its agencies. As long as Baraka was at odds with Cerf or his predecessor, Cami Anderson, the board was free to vote its conscience. Last night, it voted its politics and economic interests.
It was a new milestone in the political conversion of Ras Baraka, the son of the late fiery poet and radical Amiri Baraka. When he ran for mayor, Ras Baraka was denounced as a radical, as someone too close to gang members, as “incendiary.” He, in turn, denounced the Wall Street interests that outspent his campaign by 10-to-one as “money launderers.”
But that was then and this is now–and now, as far as school policies are concerned, he can be every bit as Republican in his leanings toward charter schools, employee unions, and state control as Gov. Chris Christie.
The forces arrayed against the state saw Baraka as a champion because he demanded the resignation of Anderson, an immediate end to the punishing and controversial “One Newark” enrollment plan, and a return to local control. He stood back and let a growing student insurgency shut down the city several times, flexing the muscle of street activists.
But then, last May, something happened. Baraka and Chris Christie cut a deal. Christie got peace in Newark during his presidential bid–and Baraka said he got a promise of eventual local control after 20 years in a ruinous state halter. Anderson was replaced by Cerf who, if anything, was more hated locally than Anderson because Cerf was the state education commissioner who appointed Anderson and allowed her free rein to run Newark.
But Cerf was a national champion of charter schools and Baraka, while saying he supported charter school parents, insisted the district should not allow expansion of the charter schools.
But there’s money in privately-operated charter schools–and political clout. In September, Baraka went on a city tour paid for by charter organizations and he gave out the backpacks they had purchased. He began criticizing charter critics, saying they were trying to divide the city. Baraka put critics on committees and board like the Newark Educational Success Board in which they could not speak and had to give up their protest activities.
They were, in a word, co-opted. Ironically, when Baraka for mayor, he said that, if he were elected, everyone in the city would become the mayor. What he apparently meant was that everyone in the city would have to act and think like the mayor–at least if they wanted a city job or appointment to some ceremonial position.
Cerf and Baraka made an increasing number of joint appearances and together launched a community schools initiative. Cerf, the patrician from Montclair, and Baraka, the urban mayor with street cred, became an odd couple–and, until last night, the most obvious result was a letter, written jointly by Cerf and Baraka in which they asked Christie for more money for the district.
As a result, they got a pittance–some $26 million added to a $1.1 billion spending plan that was millions behind what it should have been if state aid had been provided according to the formula. What was important about the letter was this: Baraka took Cerf’s positions on “aggressive budget reductions” for the city schools; hard lines on union contracts, and an agreement to expand charter schools. The letter was endorsed by every pro-charter group active in the city.
More importantly–given what happened last night–it was endorsed by the same six school board members who voted to give Cerf a free hand in giving away tens of millions of dollars in school property.
“This is an important vote, it will have repercussions long into the future,” Baskerville-Richardson pleaded. Other critics had noted that, if the city were serious about expanding public school enrollment over charter enrollment, they should hold on to buildings that might be needed in the future.
But a Newark mayor–even one who pledged during the campaign that he would respect the independence of the elected board—is a powerful politician with lots of patronage jobs to hand out to those who obey his will.
And that power was on pitiful display last night.