Cami Anderson, Gov. Chris Christie’s appointee to run the Newark schools, is either afraid of, or contemptuous of, the people of Newark. She is imposing a hotly contested school closing plan on the city, selling off public school property to private entrepreneurs, and trying to fire a third of the school’s teachers. But she won’t appear in public to explain the reasons for actions that could change, even harm, the lives of thousands of people. The state-appointed superintendent of Newark schools said she would no longer attend public school board meetings, although the law–to say nothing of common decency–requires her to do that. What breathtakingly shameful behavior.
She made the announcement less than two hours before the scheduled start of last night’s regularly scheduled board meeting at which she was expected to explain both the latest revisions to her controversial “One Newark” plan and her decision to seek approval from the state to lay off teachers without regard to tenure or seniority.
In an open letter signed the “Newark Public Schools,” Anderson said she would no longer attend the monthly meetings because:
“The dysfunction displayed within this forum sets a bad example for our children. and it’s no longer a place where meaningful interaction and dialogue occurs between NPS and the public.”
She said she and her top aides “will no longer attend these meeting until the SAB”–school advisory board–” can commit to ensuring a space conducive to open dialogue with the community.”
The law allowing the state to take over districts requires the superintendent to “report to the board on all actions taken and on pending actions in a timely fashion, and provide for a full discussion by the board and by the public of those actions.” But the law also grants tenure to teachers and Anderson believes she can get around that.
The reaction of an overflow audience of some 500 last night was, at times. oddly jubilant, as if the participants had just forced some petty Third World dictator to flee the country in the face of a popular uprising. If there had been a statue of her somewhere in Newark, they might have rushed out to knock it down and cheered.
If Anderson expected anger from her act of disrespect, there was little evident.
“This is a good sign,” said Donna Jackson, a community activist who has been critical of Anderson’s support for privatized schools. “We got to her. We’ve got to keep up the pressure. We knocked her down and we’re going to knock her down again.”
The crowd happily applauded performances by children hosting the school, the Rafael Hernandez School in Newark’s North Ward. Singers and dancers. They showed affection for children from the Ivy Hill School who pleaded for the return of their principal, Lisa Brown, one of five principals suspended by Anderson for opposition to “One Newark” plan. While three of the principals were returned to their schools, two–Brown and Deneen Washington of Maple Avenue–were reassigned to central office.
“I miss hearing Ms. Brown’s voice and seeing her smile,” one little girl said, provoking a sympathetic reaction from the audience.
One teacher, Michael Iovino, broke down in tears as he said he believed the community’s ability to keep Anderson away “was the first sign of hope I have seen in Newark in years.”
There was even a little street theater. Miniature “pink slips” showered down on the audience as Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU)addressed an absent Anderson and told her to “slither and slide away.” One woman in the audience spun a pink hula hoop, a reference to a for-profit corporation created by one group of charter schools–TEAM Academy–to buy Newark public school property.
But underlying some of the celebratory and mocking references were serious issues. In the audience, I spoke with teachers who were genuinely afraid because they thought they would be laid off and their families’ income would be cut. I spoke to parents who were afraid they would have to put their children on buses to send them across town if Anderson’s “One Newark” plan were imposed.
Anderson is attempting to impose these radical changes on students, parents, and teachers and what struck many of the people in the audience last night was how extraordinaryl it was for someone with such power and such plans to run away from trying to explain why she thought such harsh steps were necessary.
“You spit in the face of the Newark people,” Del Grosso said. “You are a coward.”
Mayoral candidate Ras Baraka drew some of the loudest cheers when he questioned how someone could be a leader and hide from the people she’s trying to lead.
“It is not leadership to refuse to come to a board meeting simply because people don’t agree with you,” said Baraka. His rival, former board member Shavar Jeffries, originally backed Anderson and her plans but then became critical of them after Baraka’s popularity soared by becoming a champion of the anti-Anderson forces. The genuineness of Jeffries’ supposed anger at Anderson was belied by the widely distributed photograph taken of Jeffries, his campaign manager Carl Sharif and Anderson dining
Anderson’s decision to boycott public meetings is likely both to solidify the opposition to her and broaden it. State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) noted that she is trying to get around a new teacher tenure law by seeking the administrative ability to fire tenured teachers. Rice promised an investigation into her operation of the district–particularly her ties to organizations like Teach for America (TFA) and charter school owners and operators.
Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), reasserted his support for the NTU–although they are rival unions–and ratcheted up his attack on privatized schools, calling for a “moratorium on the approval of new charters.”
Steinhauer, whose organization had been criticized for acceding to the growth of charters and helping pass the new tenure law, charged Anderson was making “teachetrs the scapegoats for her failures, and the state’s failure over the last 20 years.”
“Anyone who cares about the integrity of public schools in New Jersey must united in opposition to this unlawful abuse of power.”
Still, it’s anyone’s guess whether Anderson’s decision to run away from the opposition she provoked will hinder her efforts to strip tenured teachers of power and close down and sell public schools to private interests. She clearly has the backing of the governor who has publicly declared he doesn’t believe the residents of Newark have anything to say about their schools.
But her decision to hide in the face of opposition certainly doesn’t enhance her reputation as a school leader. Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the president of the board, blamed Anderson for creating the anger the $290,000-a-year superintendent is now running from.
“Shame on you, Cami Anderson,” she said, and repeated, “Shame on you!.”