NJ’s Schoolgate deserves investigation, too: Guest blog


By Jim O’Neill

West Orange interim superintendent Jim 'Neill
West Orange interim superintendent Jim ‘Neill

The Bridgegate investigation led from Fort Lee to Hoboken, the Hunterdon County Sheriff’s Office, Sandy ads, Sandy funds and the ARC tunnel.  After four years of being intimidated by the crass talking intimidator-in-chief, our elected representatives and investigative journalists have their mojo back and should hurry to investigate the highly touted education reforms in NJ.   Articulated and spearheaded by a private school advocate clothed in the powers of state education commissioner, the soon to be departed Chris Cerf leaves NJ teachers and students suffering from a debilitating hangover.

Cerf learned from our governor that, if you say the same thing often enough, say it forcefully enough and demonize all those who raise a hand to disagree, you will attract attention and true believers.   The naysayers were painted as out of date fat cat public employees only interested in themselves and not the health, welfare, or academic well-being of the students in our schools.   Fortunately for the parents of over one million students in NJ public schools, nothing could be further from the truth.

The reforms foisted on NJ and other states lack intellectual credibility because the advocates refuse to entertain alternate ideas or facts.  The “we know we are right” attitude confirms an insular mentality and a deep-seated insecurity, which also blinded those in the governor’s circle of trust.  Platitudes about closing failing schools and all children succeeding are the public catch phrases of a political agenda masquerading as education reforms.

We did need an easier and less costly way to get rid of poor teachers but the answer was not to build a house where only the carpenters could be blamed for failure not the architects.  The speed with which NJ Achieve and the new evaluation system was implemented ignored the complexity of the issues. Failure to act will precipitate the fall of New Jersey public schools from among the very best in the nation.    The reform battle was reminiscent of the Christie/NJEA battles but there was widespread agreement about what to fix; only the methodology of change was in dispute.


Christopher Cerf--leaving behind a hangover?
Christopher Cerf–leaving behind a hangover?

In spite of the fact that the federal government has spent over 5 billion dollars promoting many of these reforms since 2009, a recent study concluded the results were negligible. “Money and Mandates” in 2011/12 resulted in 55% of schools improving math scores a mere 2 points, while 38% declined and 7% stayed the same.  In language arts, 61% of schools improved but only by one point; while 34% declined and 6% stayed the same. (1)

Arrogance doomed the process; if there had been an open discussion of these reforms, a willingness for them to be modified or even implemented in a longer time frame we could have avoided the fallout resulting in excellent but demoralized educators changing careers and retiring.

One of the many flaws of the reforms was the complete disregard for the time intensity of administrative staff.  While principals promote character education, pursue bullying, prohibit gangs, eliminate drugs, accommodate special needs, make students from different cultures feel welcome, those from economically disadvantaged homes believe they can overcome dire circumstances, build confidence in all and meet with parents not happy about a teacher, a detention or a grade– they also have time to monitor attendance, excessive testing and conduct 70 or more observations accompanied by pre- and post-conferences (total 210 in fewer than 180 days).


Two members of the Assembly Education Committee told me and others in October that Cerf did not come and give them updates or reports.  Why not?  We already have a rubber stamp state Board of Education so, if the Legislature is not overseeing the state Department of Education, who is?  The same reforms the Legislature felt so strongly about they chose not to endorse the regulations, but wrote them into statute!   If not for academic reasons why has the legislature abandoned their fiduciary responsibility to oversee the biggest unfunded mandate ever imposed on school districts?   A traffic jam in Fort Lee was not the only thing that happened the past four years. Bill Baroni and David Wildstein were not the only individuals appointed to high public office.  The Legislature needs to investigate the Christie/Cerf education reforms with the same interest and fervor as Bridgegate.

Jim O’Neill is interim West Orange schools superintendent. He served many years as Chatham schools superintendent. Guest contributions are welcomed at Bob Braun’s Ledger



  1. Great job Jim, I completely agree.

    I work on environmental policy and see many of the same problems and have urged that legislature oversee and media investigate the abuses at DEP – from policy to personnel.

    Just one example: for the first time ever, NJ DEP has a Commissioner with no environmental, legal, or governmental experience or training. Bob Martin is a retired corporate consultant with degrees in economics and business administration.

    Long prior to Cami’s threatened move in Newark, the DEP adopted a waiver rule that gives the Commissioner power to have regulations.

    Just like similar education initiatives, they are pushing privatization, outsourcing of core governmental responsibilities, and developing policies in non-transparent ways that involve major roles for private corporations with economic conflicts of interest.

    The arrogance and refusal to deal with data and science is very similar too.

    This all comes from the top, Gov. Christie – it reflects his ideology, hubris, and incompetence, as you note.

  2. Great Well written,Cerf will now give Newark waiver on Tuesday to destroy seniority rights in the district.Cami has hired new recruiters to hire 700 new teachers,300 from the employes without placement and 400 who are partially effective.Hespe will be taking Cerf’s place.

  3. We need more people from the field of education speaking up and saying these things (these truths might be more applicable here). Thank you Jim O’Neill and thank you Bob Braun for sharing your platform with informed educators. I just came back from hearing Mark Weber (the Jersey Jazzman) speak at Rutgers Newark and I am feeling overwhelmed by the feelings of dismay and fear that were communicated to me after the talk by a Newark school teacher sitting behind me (I teach in another district). Dedicated educators like her, i.e. veterans with years of experience and often women, deserve to be fully appreciated and recognized for their service rather than contemplating early retirement before Cami Anderson can bring down the hatchet on them by getting a waiver to ignore seniority in her “right-sizing” project and firing those at the top of the salary guide. It’s time for people to speak up, time to give control of the Newark public schools back to the city’s taxpayers and to the parents of students AND time for people to put pressure on their elected representatives to get moving with serious investigations into Christie’s practices, policies and strong-arm and most likely illegal activities. A consensus emerged today at Rutgers Newark: it is not paranoid to consider this an all-out war as well as a conspiracy to infiltrate and privatize public education so as to facilitate the super-rich in keeping America’s masses uneducated and uninformed and therefore malleable and incapable of serious critical thinking. If, along the way, they can make a profit through charters, common-core curriculum products and standardized testing programs, so much the better. As goes Newark, so go other districts…or at least that’s their plan…let’s work together to inform the public and fight back!

  4. Someone should mention that Jim O’Neill was one of the first NJ superintendents to stand up and decry the Christie attack on public schools. Thank you for this, Mr. O’Neill.

    Bob Braun: Good point, JJ. A courageous, informed voice that I hope will continue to be heard after he retires from West Orange. It’s good to be reminded that the insanity that passes for educational policy in New Jersey affects suburbs like Chatham and West Orange as well as cities like Newark.

  5. Well done, Jim.

    I was just about to go on and on about my 40 year school administrator experience. I intended to write about five or six paragraphs about the many tasks associated with the jobs of Principal and Vice Principa. Then I got halted cold.
    I was about to start my rant with the following words: “As a retired school administrator……” However, after typing a few words on my computer, I looked more closely at what was printed on the screen. The computer must have either spellchecked or corrected my typing. Instead of: “As retired school administrator”, the words on the screen said, “As a tired school administrator….”
    I guess there is no need for me to write those other five or six paragraphs……

  6. Your sentiments Jim add an outside voice to this discussion. People must realized this in not just Newark bitching about Cami’s policies, but an attempt to not only privatize public education, but keep the masses uneducated, thereby uninformed, thereby less of a threat at the polls. Jefferson’s original purpose for initiating public education was to have an informed electorate. Now those of us who are “informed” must make our wishes known to the elected officials and have them feel it at the polls.

  7. Thank you for your leadership and courage. If we had more superintendents like you, we would not be in as big a mess as we are now. I hope other administrators read this and feel empowered to speak up and take a stand!

  8. Isn’t Jim O’Neill one of the superintendents who brought a lawsuit against the Governor regarding the superintendent pay caps? This sounds like a whining overpaid superintendent who has retired and claimed a pension while also serving as an interim superintendent drawing more taxpayer money into his own coffers. NJ can’t afford your greed and whining. NJ students are not all recipients of his false claim of great schooling in this state. The districts that do well do so because the test scores of the elite (the students who cannot attain those scores are shipped out into resource rooms or out of district placements) are well supported by parents shelling out $millions for tutoring their children. Many recipients of those $$ are public school teachers, maybe even their own classroom teachers. Talk about a conflict of interest. Jim O- you are a hot balloon that needs to be deflated.

    Bob Braun: I wish you would reconcile what you wrote here with the apparent connivance of the governor to help other superintendents he likes escape the salary cap. For the record, I consider Jim O’Neill to be one of the brightest, most courageous educators in New Jersey.

  9. […] remarkable, something we expect from retired educators, not those in the field. He spoke up. He denounced the failed reforms of the Christie administration whose purpose is not to improve education but to open up the school budget for privatization. For […]

  10. […] remarkable, something we expect from retired educators, not those in the field. He spoke up. He denounced the failed reforms of the Christie administration whose purpose is not to improve education but to open up the school budget for privatization. For […]

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