A growing sense of impatience and frustration over continued state control of the Newark schools and increasing encroachment by privately-operated charter schools boiled over into disruption Monday night at a regular meeting of the city’s school board. A pro-public school activist, Jimmie White, charged the stage at University High School where board members were sitting, angrily denouncing Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed schools superintendent. Although White was ejected by security guards, students and others in the audience cheered him on and continued to disrupt the meeting after his eviction.
“You have to go,” shouted White as he strode toward the stage. He made his comments after Valerie Wilson, the business administrator had just completed a long presentation outlining just how difficult it would be for local control of schools to be returned to Newark after 20 years of state control. “You brought us these problems.”
Tensions already were high because of an apparent decision by pro-charter school parents and leaders to push back against increasing demands by pro-public school activists to slow the burgeoning growth of the privately-operated charter schools.
Increasing enrollment of charter schools, which are publicly-funded, decreases the amount of funds available to traditional, neighborhood public schools. That is happening at the same time that the state administration is cutting funds because of a budget shortfall.
The pro-public school advocates have lost ground recently. The city’s planning board–with the apparent blessing of Mayor Ras Baraka–approved the building of a new charter school by the NorthStar chain on land once owned by The Star-Ledger. The New York-based chain of KIPP charter schools–known in Newark as TEAM Academy–also announced plans to open five new charter schools. A consortium of from three to five public schools also is expected to try to convert to charters.
One of the pro-public school advocates, Annette Allston, a vice president of the Newark Teachers Association, predicted the city would soon “become another New Orleans” where all public schools have been closed and replaced by charters. Charters now enrollt about a third of all Newark students but that number is expected to grow to nearly 70 percent in a few years.
The pro-public school advocates also felt the sting of the possible loss of a champion, Baraka, who rode to election last year on a wave of anti-privatization sentiment. Since that time, he has moved closer to the supporters of charter schools.
Baraka did not show up–but his pro-charter rival in last year’s election, Shavar Jeffries, did. Jeffries is now head of the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) that blames public school unions for the failure of urban schools.
The night saw a resurgence of the Newark Student Union, an organization that spearheaded the anti-state movement and ultimately forced the apparent dismissal of Cami Anderson, the state appointed school superintendent for four years.
Roberto Cabanes, an organizer for NJ Communities United that helped organize the student union, told a rally before the meeting that the students were ready “to put their bodies where their beliefs were.” Earlier, he had predicted “arrests” would occur in the rejuvenated efforts of the student group.
But Cabanes and other pro-public school advocates were forced to hew to a difficult line–they kept insisting they were not opposed to parents who sent their kids to charter schools but rather to the outsiders, including Wall Street financiers, who were “pouring money into Newark trying to divide parents in the city.”
Deborah Gregory, the head of the Newark NAACP branch, took a similar tack–charter school parents should not be criticized.
“They are thinking of their own children but they don’t see how other children might get hurt because they are thinking of only their own children,” she said.
Charter school parents, however, don’t seem to buy the idea of reconciliation with public school parents. Many in the audience cheered one speaker who insisted charter school parents had a “constitutional right” to send their children to publicly-funded but privately-operated schools.
One public school advocate–Donna Jackson–referred to the fight between groups of parents as a “war” and told the charter school parents they should not be attending public school board meetings.
“Your schools have your own boards–go to them,” she said, a reference to the trustee boards that govern charter schools, many of them made up of residents of other communities. Montclair resident Cerf, in fact, was a charter school trustee.
The meeting erupted again when charter supporters heckled and interrupted Jackson–and public school supporters rose and demanded that Jackson be allowed to speak.
The tensions in the room also were obvious in the relationship between Cerf, the former state education commissioner who replaced Anderson (a woman he had hired), and the school board–especially over the district’s personnel director, Vanessa Rodriguez.
The board had previously tried to fire Rodriguez but Cerf blocked the move. On Monday night, the board heard a report about illegal over-time payments and a number of the members blamed Rodriguez. Cerf, clearly on the verge of losing his temper, defended Rodriguez and answered board members’ questions with brusque, snappish responses.
Note: An earlier version of this article indicated Jimmie White was directing his comments to Valerie Wilson. This morning, he indicated the target of his protest was Cerf, not Wilson.