The New Jersey State Board of Education will not allow public testimony on its apparently predetermined decision to impose Christopher Cerf, former state education commissioner and private business entrepreneur, on the people of Newark as the city’s next school superintendent. The president-elect of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) said he was warned that, if he tried to speak at next Wednesday’s meeting in Trenton, he would be forcibly ejected from the meeting room.
“Standard operating procedure,” said John Abeigon, who will be formally installed Tuesday as the next NTU president. “They do what the governor tells them to do.”
The decision to vote on Cerf’s appointment, despite his lack of state-required credentials and his recent decision to take a leadership role in a national lobbying group promoting charter schools, foreshadows what may result from the agreement between Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Clearly, no one else but Christie will have any say.
That agreement, announced late Friday afternoon, allows Cerf to come in as state-appointed superintendent while, at the same time, a “Newark Board of Educational Success”–dominated by Christie employees and corporate supporters of charter schools–decides when and under what circumstances Newark might regain local control of its schools. The takeover law that already provides a path to the return of local control has been ignored by the state in the past–and apparently will be again.
Under the terms of the agreement, the board won’t even meet until after Cerf is appointed to take over from the now disgraced Cami Anderson, dumped by Christie last week to prevent possible embarrassment to his presidential campaign, scheduled to begin Tuesday.
Abeigon, who represents more than 4,000 school employees, said he logged on to the state Board of Education’s website to reserve a time for him to speak on the Cerf nomination at the July 8 meeting. However, he said the website indicated public testimony would only be allowed on the topic of bilingual education.
“So I selected that topic but then wrote in I wanted to talk about the appointment of Cerf to be Newark superintendent,” said Abeigon. “Then I got a call from someone at the department who said I would not be allowed to speak and, if I did, I would be escorted for the room.”
Anderson already tried to ban Abeigon from visiting Newark public schools has brought charges against him that could result in imprisonment and loss of his teaching licenses.
So begins the next phase in the destruction of public education in Newark.
The “Newark Board of Educational Success,” appointed by Christie, is, by next year, supposed to create “benchmarks” and “timelines” for a return to the local control that was lost exactly 20 years ago July 1. Once that happens, then local control is supposed to happen as soon as possible. But the agreement contained no promise that local control would be returned to the people of Newark.
Christie has shown who is in charge. Although he made his own nominations to the board, he rejected key nominations to the committee made by Baraka, including that of the mayor’s chief academic officer, Dr. Lauren Wells; Deborah Gregory, the head of the Newark NAACP, and Roberto Cabanas, an organizer for NJ Communities United who helped guide the development of the Newark Student Union, an organization that helped drive Anderson from the city.
Christie, on the other hand, appointed Cerf, a national charter advocate and businessman; Rochelle Hendricks, the state higher education secretary; Al Koeppe, who helped charter schools receive millions of dollars while he was chairman of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority; Donald Katz, a charter advocate, and Ross Danis, who supported both expansion of charter schools and Christie’s development of a bill weakening tenure.
The governor allowed Baraka’s appointment to the committee of parent advocate Grace Sergio; Jose Leonardo, an Arts High School senior and president of the Newark Students Union; Mary Bennett, the retired principal of Shabazz High School and head of the Newark Alliance for Public Schools.
Baraka declined to comment on the revelation that Cerf would come to Newark while, at the same time, serving as a member of the board of directors of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. Even Cami Anderson admitted that Newark’s public schools were struggling because of the growth of charter schools in the city.
Cerf takes over just after the governor and the Legislature agreed to shift some $25 million state school aid from neighborhood public schools to privately-operated charter schools.
Abeigon said he was concerned that the participation of student and parent advocates on the Christie committee might mean a lessening of the pressure that had been building up to rid the city of Anderson and state control. No school employees or representatives of employee organizations were allowed on the committee by Christie.
“But that is not how the Newark Teachers Union will act,” said Abeigon. “If anything, the way we are being treated by the state will only increase the anger of Newark teachers.”
He said he believed Newark teachers would take seriously the role they play as guardians of children while they are in school.
“We cannot tolerate special needs children not receiving the services they are required to get by law,” he said. “When teachers come back in September, they will be angry about what has happened and they will want to act.”
The state school board, especially under Christie, has served primarily as a rubber-stamp for the governor’s policies and those of his commissioners–Cerf and David Hespe.
More than that, the Christie appointees are out of touch with the people affected by their decisions, particularly when it comes to state takeovers and the problems of urban children. Not one of them lives in anything that looks even remotely like a city–none is from Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, or Camden, the cities where schools have been seized by the state, some for decades.
Let’s look at some of these people. Mark Biedron owns a business in Colorado but lives in Pottersville. He started a private school. He has donated nearly $30,000 to Republican causes in New Jersey, including $7,000 to Christie himself. These are state figures provided by the state Election Law Enforcement Commissioner. Pottersville, by the way, is one of the wealthiest communities in New Jersey. The median household family income is more than $171,000–in Newark, it’s $44,000.
Another is Claire Chamberlain of Bernardsville who donated $13,000 to GOP causes, most of it going to Christie. The median household income in Bernardsville is $126,000. In Paterson, it’s $32,400–down from $32,700 a decade ago.
Board member J. Peter Simon of Green Village, the son of the late William E. Simon, the former secretary of the treasury, gave more than $26,000 to state GOP causes, including $8,000 to Christie campaigns. The median family income in Green Village is $155,000. In Camden, it’s $25,600–less than the small change Simon gave to fellow Republicans.
Andrew Mulvihill is another Christie appointee. He lives in Andover where the median income–comparatively–is a modest $84,000. Compared to Jersey City, where it’s $56,000 (see, gentrification works). But Mulvihill, a real estate developer, donated $43,000 to politicians, most of them Republicans.
Christie’s firing of Anderson briefly brought hope that things might change in Newark, but it’s obvious they won’t. Christie will ram through what he wants–and that includes a grafter like Cerf as Newark superintendent. Anyone who hopes the governor will allow Newark to be anything by a locally controlled charter school district–like New Orleans–is likely to be disappointed.