The head of a committee established to find a “road map” to return local control to Newark’s public schools revealed Wednesday night that the end of state operation of New Jersey’s largest school district may be delayed further into the future than originally hoped. Mary Bennett also warned an audience of some 100 city residents that the district that is returned to a locally elected school board, it “will not look very much like” the school system seized by the state in 1995.
Bennett, one of nine members of the so-called “Newark Educational Success Board,” (NESB) said the panel had been told by state education officials that the current school board will have to “demonstrate over time that (it) can govern itself.” She said the state officials alone would determine how long that “over time” would last.
Bennett, the former principal of Malcolm X Shabazz High School, was one of four Newark residents appointed to the panel by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. The other five were appointed by Gov. Chris Christie. She said the judgment of those state officials might be overturned by state Education Commissioner David Hespe.
“We were told the education commissioner had great latitude in determining when we could achieve governance,” said Bennett who now heads the Alliance for Newark Public Schools.
Bennett made the comments after the two hour meeting wrapped up and did not reveal the possible delay during the meeting that brought scores of people to the Abyssinian Baptist Church to describe what they wanted to see in a restored Newark school district. Most said they wanted the restoration of a wide variety of programs that had been cut because of budget problems encountered for years by the district’s state managers.
The timing of the return to local control is a potentially explosive issue. One speaker, Deacon Stephen Outing of Metropolitan Baptist Church and a member of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, demanded that the committee announce a deadline by which local control would be restored.
“You tell the governor we need a deadline,” said Outing, pointing at state-appointed schools superintendent Christopher Cerf, who also is a member of the NESB. “We need a date. Otherwise this is just politics. We need a date now. Anything else is not acceptable.”
Outing pointed out that, four years ago, the district had met all the requirements for a return to local control but it was denied by the then state education commissioner who also had “latitude.” That commissioner was Christopher Cerf.
John Abeigon, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, said the state’s insistence on meeting benchmarks in a state accountability system known by its acronym–QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum)–was a “cruel joke” because the district had to rely on the state officials running the district to meet the requirements.
“It’s just a tool to keep the state in control,” Abeigon said.
Bennett did not respond to the demands to set a deadline although she suggested full control might be delayed until Gov. Chris Christie leaves office which, she said mistakenly, would be January, 2017. In fact, Christie leaves office in January, 2018.
Outing’s reference to the politics of the NESB is a sore spot. The committee was established in a deal between Christie and Baraka that also led to both the dismissal of former superintendent Cami Anderson and her replacement by Cerf, a former state education commissioner who actually hired Anderson. Baraka appeared briefly at the meeting and once again, as he has done repeatedly in the past, criticized those who have criticized the arrangement.
The deal also brought an abrupt end to increasingly intense street demonstrations, most of them organized by the Newark Students Union, aimed at Christie just as he was embarking on his presidential campaign. Jose Leonardo, the president of the NSU, defended his decision to accept appointment to the committee.
He said he agreed to serve because he “loved the city” and thought students could contribute “more than just making noise in the street.”
Annette Alston, a Newark teacher and vice president of the Newark Teachers Association, brought up the possibility that the state would try to delay a return to local control. She said she believed–and Bennett agreed–that the school district would have to do far more than finish required reports.
“The school board will have to show both a capacity and a durability in its ability to lead,” said Alston.
Bennett’s other comments–about what the district would look like after the end of state control–suggested the city’s traditional public schools would play a less significant role in the education of some 50,000 Newark children–and charter schools would play more.
The role of privately-operated charter schools in a new Newark system also is a sore point. Several speakers said they should be treated like private schools without public funding and should be subjected to the same sort of state scrutiny as public schools. Others denounced pro-charter members of the NESB as “racists.”
Bennett said the NESB would conduct at least three more open meetings before it issues its report no later than June of next year. She conceded last night the NESB’s report could be rejected either by Baraka or Christie and its revision could take even more time.
When Baraka first announced the deal with Christie, he said he hoped local control could be returned by the beginning of the 2016 school year, less than a year from now. Christie, however, has only said he “hoped” local control could “ultimately” be returned to Newark.