The Newark Educational Success Board (NESB) was created as part of the deal between Gov. Chris Christie and Ras Baraka, the city’s mayor, that ended months of increasingly militant demonstrations against state control of New Jersey’s largest school district. The NESB has operated in almost total secrecy since its creation June 26, 2015–and major developments affecting the panel have not been made public. Members of the board agreed to impose a gag order on themselves and not speak publicly about its primary mission–a return of local control.
For example, one of the board members, Ross Danis, resigned and was replaced by Shane Harris, an executive with Prudential who heads the Newark Trust for Education and a charter supporter. That was never announced.
The board has asked the Panasonic Foundation to write the “so-called” road map to local control. The foundation has been instrumental in assisting charter schools throughout the nation. That was never announced.
The board refused to endorse Baraka’s controversial Feb. 1 letter pleading for more money for the city’s public schools, a letter in which the mayor conceded charter schools should be given additional state funds even if that meant flat-funding for the public schools. The panel also was asked by Baraka not to respond to, or even consider, the threat by Christie to delay a return of local control as part of the governor’s warning that he would “run over” the mayor if he tried to block charter expansion. That was never announced.
The Baraka/Christie deal brought Christopher Cerf, the former state education commissioner, to Newark as state-appointed superintendent. Cerf, as commissioner, hired Cami Anderson to come to Newark and guided, controlled and allowed all the policies and personnel decisions–from illegally creating “renew” schools to neglecting the poisoning of the district’s water–that the state imposed since Christie’s assumption of office in 2010.
Yet, now with backing from Baraka, Cerf is clearly in control and is guiding the NESB’s agenda.
The behavior of the NESB–three of whose members were once the most vocal critics of state control–gives the lie to promises by both Baraka and Christie to make the return to local control the subject of open, community-wide discussions.
Here, for example is what the joint Baraka/Christie announcement of the NESB promised the people of Newark:
“The panel will immediately begin to solicit input from and engage the local community in its deliberations and provide us with a detailed roadmap, including benchmarks for return to local control as soon as that can be accomplished but no later than by the end of the upcoming academic year…We have also agreed to communicate fully and effectively with each other throughout the transitional period and with students, parents and the community.”
That never happened. The NESB held one public meeting–for two hours in September, three months after it was created. A few weeks later, it held another meeting–but just for teachers.
So, in nearly a year of its existence, the NESB, which was supposed to “solicit input from and engage the local community in its deliberations,” has done neither.
And there certainly has not been communication with “student, parents, and the community.”
In September, NESB member Mary Bennett, the retired principal of Shabazz High School and then the head of the Alliance for Newark Public Schools, promised at least three more public meetings to “engage” the community. Those meetings have never been held.
The original announcement in June, 2015, promised a “road map” to local control by the end of this school year, now only six weeks away–although Baraka kept insisting he wanted local control returned earlier.
Just what a “road map” is supposed to be has never been explained–nor has the NESB itself ever attempted to distinguish what it is doing from what the Newark School Advisory Board is doing to improve its chances of a return to local control. The state takeover law contains no reference to such a panel–it was the political creation solely of the deal between Christie and Baraka, apparently aimed at ending resistance to Christie’s policies.
What has happened since the creation of the NESB demonstrates its real purpose was to end the anti-state demonstrations and militancy that had both embarrassed Christie–then in the midst of his failed presidential campaign–and resulted in Baraka’s election as mayor. Baraka faced a strong and well-financed challenge from Shavar Jeffries, a Seton Hall Law School faculty member and charter school supporter.
Baraka likely would not have won if he had not held himself out as the champion both of local control and the primary importance of supporting traditional public schools over charter schools. He was supported by unions, community groups, parents, student organizations and civil rights groups.
Now, Baraka, halfway through his term, is consolidating his power over the schools despite promises he would respect the independence of the school district. He has formed an alliance with Cerf to open community schools in the South Ward, his home ward. He has joined with charter school forces–including backing a so-called unity slate for the school board that, if successful, will strengthen the grip of charter schools on district policy, a clear conflict of interest.
There’s more, much more. Three of the NESB members–Bennett, Grace Sergio, and Jose Leonardo–were once leaders of the anti-state movement. Bennett, as head of the alliance, was the architect of community education as an alternative to state control and charter expansion. Sergio was a vocal parent advocate and organizer. Jose Leonardo was head of the Newark Students Union.
Now the three of them are silent. Leonardo even quit his position as student union president. And the student union itself broke from NJ Communities United, a community organization funded by the Communications Workers of America (CWA).
On April 1, the CWA tried to organize a march on City Hall. Only a few dozen people showed up–and the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) stayed away. Power once was concentrated in the streets and among community and union groups–and it was that power that made Baraka mayor and drove Anderson from office.
But now Baraka no longer needs that power. Indeed, it became a threat to his ability to work with the state and charter groups. The lions in the street became the lambs that could easily be sacrificed for City Hall’s agenda.
Baraka–together with Christie and Cerf, Christie’s man in Newark–has the power, controls it, dispenses it, uses it to hire current and former school board members.
And the voice of the people is no longer heard in the city.
The loud shouts and roars once heard on the streets of Newark have now been replaced by the silence of the lambs.