Newark’s state-appointed superintendent Christopher Cerf has reached a deal with city officials to turn over 12 school district properties worth millions of dollars to the Newark Housing Authority–for nothing.
Members of the Newark school board are expected to try to stop the massive property transfer at Tuesday night’s meeting but it’s not clear whether opponents of Cerf’s plan have enough votes to stop him–or even whether the board has the power to stop him. The state still controls the Newark district despite promises of a return to local control.
Cerf announced the plan at last week’s business meeting of the board, calling it part of his continuing efforts to cut the school district’s budget. He initially said all the property was unused, but that’s not true. One of the properties, the former Burnet Street School, is now occupied by the Paolo Freire Charter School. And there are more than these 12 parcels in the district’s property inventory.
“We are getting the impression we are being rushed to do this,” said board member Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson. “We don’t have the information we need.”
“We should have been notified,” said board member Dashay Carter. “We should have received the courtesy of being told you were doing this.”
Cerf insisted he had the power to make the deal and said he had “many meetings” with City Hall officials, presumably including Mayor Ras Baraka. Baskerville-Richardson shot back that he should have held a meeting with the school board members before cutting the deal with the city.
The state-appointed superintendent said the district spends $2 million to $4 million every year to maintain and insure the properties that are not used. Giving away the property would cut that amount from the budget, he said.
He called it, “responsible leadership and management.”
Carter, however, insisted the school district should have more control over the conditions of handing the land over to the Newark Housing Authority–particularly because the district will not immediately receive any compensation for the property it gives away.
Cerf said his deal with the city would include a provision for payment to the district of whatever the Newark Housing Authority receives for the sale of the property–less “administrative expenses” incurred by the housing authority.
The state official also said the district would be paid if the properties are “redeveloped”–but he was vague about those provisions. The board’s lawyer, Charlotte Hitchcock, told the board members that, once they gave over title to the property to the housing authority, they would no longer be in any position to impose conditions on the property’s disposal.
Carter said she wanted to hold on to some property against the possibility enrollments would increase and the schools about to be given away would be needed.
“We all hope the Newark public schools will be coming back–that’s what we’re all striving for, and so we shouldn’t be giving away our schools,” said Carter.
Cerf said the district–although not necessarily the board–would be able to reclaim them, according to a document he handed out at the meeting, “if the NHA does not reuse them after a certain period of time.”
But the verbal explanation Cerf gave to the board didn’t match the documents. The superintendent told the board the district would be able to reclaim the properties at any time for any reason. That does not appear likely, however.
Cerf said the donation of the property to the housing authority would take him–and other school district officials–out of the business of selling real estate.
“I’m not an expert on that,” he said. More than that, a cloud of suspicions still hangs over Cerf’s head because of the so-called “Pink Hula Hoop” transfer. In that deal, former superintendent Cami Anderson sold the 18th Avenue School to TEAM Academy Charter Schools at below fair market value.
The charter school chain–part of the KIPP charter schools–is headed by Tim Carden of Montclair, a neighbor, friend and former business associate of Cerf. At the time Anderson forced the sale, Cerf was state education commissioner and his office had to approve the sale. “Pink Hula Hoop” was the name of a for-profit front organization started by TEAM Academy to take title to the land.
Another board member, Marques-Aquil Lewis, said he wanted a provision in the transfer that would preclude the sale of the school property to any charter school.
In addition to Burnet Street, Cerf plans to give away these properties:
The Maple Avenue School
The Maple Avenue School Annex
The State Street (office) building.
Dayton Street School
William Brown Academy
Benjamin Banneker School
Clinton Avenue School
Mary Wheeler Willis Day Care Center
Morton Street School
Roseville Avenue School
Warren Street School