The Cerf/Baraka letter to Christie: Surrender, deceit, and betrayal

Cerf, left, and Baraka appear with Donald Katz, a trustee of Uncommon Schools, a charter chain, at a recent public appearance (From NJSpotlight)
Cerf, left, and Baraka appear with Donald Katz, a trustee of Uncommon Schools, a charter chain, at a recent public appearance (From NJSpotlight)

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, elected with strong union backing less than two years ago on a platform of favoring the needs of public schools over charters, put his name to an extraordinary letter to Gov. Chris Christie co-authored by state-appointed superintendent Christopher Cerf that promises “aggressive budget reductions” for the public schools, expansion of charters, tough negotiations with school employee unions and a willingness to accept reductions in state aid in the future.

The letter, which praises Christie and adopts a narrative crediting his regime with improvements in the schools and reductions in a “bloated” bureaucracy, also bears the endorsement of every pro-charter organization active in Newark–including that of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), headed by Shavar Jeffries, a pro-charter lawyer who lost to Baraka in the 2014 election. It also is signed by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a Democrat and Jeffries backer, who betrayed his party’s nominee for governor in 2013, Barbara Buono, and supported the Republican Christie.

It also bears the signatures of a few legislators–but not that of state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), the chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools, a critic of state control and early Baraka backer. It also includes the names of six members of the school board, three of whom work for the city–but not that of Cerf’s severest critics on the board: Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Donald Jackson, and Dashay Carter.

While the letter was endorsed by most members of the city council, it was not signed by Council President Mildred Crump and South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James, consistently strong supporters of the city’s public schools.

Critics of the letter have refused to speak publicly against it, fearful of provoking Baraka who has been consolidating his power at City Hall. “I can’t figure out what the mayor is doing,” said one public official who demanded anonymity before speaking.

Cerf announced community schools initiative, flanked by Lauren Wells, an aide to Mayor Ras Baraka and Baraka.
Cerf announced community schools initiative, flanked by Lauren Wells, an aide to Mayor Ras Baraka and Baraka.

The letter, dated Feb. 1, is a request for $36 million in additional state aid–called “transitional aid.’ News outlets said that Christie, apparently in response to the plea from Baraka and Cerf,  already has agreed to increase state money given to Newark over last year by $26 million.

But that amount would not even make up for the $37 million cut from the Newark public schools last year to ensure that privatized charter schools were held harmless from state aid cuts–a cut that contributed to a budget crisis this year. It also would amount to less than one half of one percent of the district’s $1.1 billion budget–and remains hundreds of millions of dollars behind what Newark should receive if the state school aid formula were fully funded, something Christie has not done since taking office in 2010.

According to the Education Law Center, Christie and the Legislature have shortchanged all public schools in New Jersey by $7.1 billion.

But Baraka doesn’t mention any of that in the letter he co-signed with Cerf and the charter advocates.  Indeed, much of the letter praises the Christie regime in Newark. “We have come a long away,” they write, “and are working closely together across all schools in our community to make continued progress.”

And, just in case anyone missed the Bro-mance at the center of this, Cerf, Baraka and company talk about how the debate over  the Newark schools has become “increasingly civil.”

Not like the  student-led demonstrations of last spring that almost closed down the city and a good part of the state (while embarrassing Christie’s presidential run)–demonstrations facilitated by Baraka himself. Demonstrations then shut down as soon as Baraka cut a deal with Christie to get rid of Cami Anderson and bring in Cerf. Baraka, who often touted his support of dissent, has crushed dissent in Newark about the schools by attacking his supporters, those who  agreed with his previous views on public education–views he held before the deal with Christie.

A deal with the devil?
A deal with the devil? Graphic by Mike Simpson

 

But there is so much more that is unrecognizable–and, to public education supporters, unacceptable–in this letter, reproduced below.

To begin, the Cerf and Baraka letter–with no reference to authority whatsoever–declare they will support an expansion of charter schools. They write that “all agree that they”–charter schools–“are and will remain a significant part of the educational landscape in Newark.” More than that, Cerf and Baraka say charter schools “are on track for continued growth.”  They say that the district will “evolve to one with an increasingly diverse array of magnet, traditional and charter public schools.”

Who says? A state-appointed superintendent from Montclair with a history of involvement with charter schools and who was rejected by the elected school board? A mayor who promised as a candidate to work first and foremost for public schools?

Baraka and Cerf see there will be consequences to this “evolution.” And what are they? Continued cuts to public school budgets because every increase in charter enrollment brings a concomitant decrease in money flowing to public schools.

“As a result,” Cerf and Baraka and their moneyed pro-charter friends write, “at least in the short term, traditional public schools should bear a disproportionate share of fixed costs, significantly reducing the amount each school has available to spend.”

Got that, citizens of Newark? Public school children must sacrifice because the money is needed for charter school students. But only for a short time while the city takes care of its privately-run charter schools.

So, Baraka and Cerf want “transitional aid.” But that transitional aid will disappear in a few years. “It takes time,” Baraka and Cerf wrote with the blessing of the charter school people and frightened board members, “for an organization as large and with as many legacy costs as the school district to reduce fixed costs to align with the new realities.”

The new realities? What’s that? More charter schools. Oh, but there will be more.

John Abeigon, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, said the letter was a clear indication the state would expand charter schools in Newark while starving public schools of funds.  “They want to kill the goose laying the golden eggs,” he said.

The world envisioned by Baraka and Cerf has no place for “legacy costs” like providing a decent salary and array of benefits to school employees. In their sycophantic letter to Christie, they implicitly promise to be tough on negotiations because, they say, much of the costs of running the schools are “embedded in long-term contracts that may take several years to change.”

Those are employee contracts. Not consulting contracts. Not contracts with private organizations, like Teach for America. School employees–many of them Newark residents–face tough times because of the Cerf/Baraka alliance.

In the context of this letter, you know what those changes mean. It’s incomprehensible to me that teachers and other employees are afraid to strike in Newark–many of them will lose their jobs anyway.

Cerf already has imposed a contract settlement on members of the union representing administrators. He tried unilaterally to change prescription benefits for school employees. He clearly is trying to bust school employee unions–no surprise that Jeffries’ organization has accused unions of being the “dam” that blocks reform–a dam that “must be burst.”

This is Christie’s view of what should happen to the Newark schools–not the view of the men and women, many of them union members, who worked so hard and spent so much to elect Ras Baraka and who believed his promise to put public schools first.  They didn’t vote for Baraka so he would support “aggressive budget reductions that will close approximately half” of next year’s expected budget gap.

The people of Newark and the district’s employees should be outraged by the betrayal  in the Cerf/Baraka letter. The mayor, who consistently criticized the “rubber rooms” where teachers and administrators were sent to rot, now has written a letter in which he accepts Cerf’s characterization of the “employees without placement,” or EWPs. That Cerf-generated farce, also executed by Anderson, cost up to $30 million annually.

Now check out this lie about EWPs: The district, Cerf and Baraka wrote, “substantially eliminated the pool of unassigned ‘excess’ teachers, necessitating force placing teachers back into classrooms–teachers who disproportionately received lower evaluations and many of whom were rated ‘ineffective.’ ”

Mr. Cerf, Mayor Baraka–that is a lie and both of you know it. You should be ashamed to repeat that lie in a letter over your signatures.

The truth is hundreds teachers ended up as EWPs in rubber rooms because of Cami Anderson’s misguided “reforms” that resulted in poor performance of the students in  so-called “renew” schools. She gave inexperienced and often biased principals the right to rid themselves of teachers they simply did not like  or who did not come from Teach for America (another signatory of the Cerf/Baraka letter).

The district has never revealed how many of these EWPS teachers were rated “ineffective” and, the truth is, many of them were rated “effective” and were still punished. Anderson wanted to fire all the veteran teachers and replace them with cheaper, non-union Teach for America scabs but had no legal right to do it–and she couldn’t persuade state Education Commissioner David Hespe to break seniority to punish experienced, pro-union teachers.

That is simply part of the Cerf/Baraka letter that reeks to high heaven., There are lies about statistics as well–about increases in enrollment, about expansion in charter school enrollment that was forced by the “One Newark” plan that Baraka promised to end during his campaign.

For example, the letter states “overall enrollment in Newark schools (both charter and district) has increased significantly since 2011.” That’s not true, according to the state education department. In 2011, the enrollment of public schools was 33,279. It rose to 36,427 in 2013 then dropped to 32,980 last year–the last year for which audited figures are available.

So, in fact, even with flat funding, per pupil spending for the public schools should have risen–not fallen. The difference, of course, is the growth in charter schools–generated by Cerf’s own policies like “One Newark,” as executed by Cami Anderson since 2011. Without the charter schools, without the losses of state aid caused by transfer of funds to the privately operated schools, without the increasing fixed costs resulting from payments to charter schools, the district  wouldn’t be facing the shortfall it does now.

No “aggressive budget reductions”–like the illegal firing of attendance counselors–would be necessary.

The Baraka/Cerf letter is a document of deceit, surrender, capitulation, and betrayal. It is filled with lies and half-truths. It is a declaration of war against public school children and public school employees.

I am shocked that Ras Baraka put his name to it. Betrayal is something I expected from Cerf–he has spent his life as an  entrepreneur exploiting poverty and the gullibility of political figures to make a buck.

It’s impossible to know what will come next–but, certainly, with aggressive budget cutting, increased segregation caused by charter growth, misery among employees because of contractual changes, the future is clear.

And it is bleak.

Mr. Cerf, Mayor Baraka–I hope what you did is worth the pittance of $20 million you got for it.

 

Here is the entire letter. Read it not just for what it says but also who signed it.

Dear Governor Christie,

As elected officials and civic leaders of Newark, we write you today in the spirit of nonpartisanship and unity. We acknowledge that there have been issues related to our schools that have divided us in the past. And disagreements over complex policy issues remain the subject of spirited, although increasingly civil, debate. We are united, however, around the central value of assuring that every one of our city’s children has access to a free quality public education. We are urgently requesting your support and assistance in assuring that we can continue to make progress toward that goal.

Over the last several years, all public schools – district and charter – in Newark have had to confront the reality that there is less funding per-pupil, and we have collectively worked hard to prudently manage our expenses as a result. For charter schools these cuts have led to reductions in teaching staff and services to students. In district schools, despite massive budget cuts ($75 million alone since Chris Cerf was appointed last July), Newark Public Schools (NPS) faces a structural deficit in FY17 of an additional $72 million if the District is “flat funded” for the fourth consecutive year. The district is committed to aggressive budget reductions that will close approximately half of that gap. The only way to close the rest, however, would be with unacceptably high reductions to NPS school budgets.

Mindful of the extreme budget challenges you must balance across the state, you have every right to ask how the district’s structural deficit occurred.

The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the “Former Abbotts” are overfunded and inefficient. Five years ago, the problem was indeed a bloated central bureaucracy. But that is far less true today. Non-school expenses have now been reduced to a very respectable 5.2% of revenues. NPS has closed a $75 million budget gap since July 1, 2015 alone. When added to the 2011-15 reductions of $82 million, NPS has already cut over $150 million. Many of the actions taken have painful consequences: NPS reduced FTEs by over 900 and substantially eliminated the pool of unassigned “excess” teachers, necessitating force placing teachers back into classrooms – teachers who disproportionally received lower evaluations and many of whom were rated “ineffective.” Charters too have reduced their costs: reducing staff size within schools and reducing academic and operational supports for students.

To be sure, there is work left to do. NPS is aggressively pursuing a number of initiatives, but all take time. Moreover, even if NPS were to reduce its central expenses to zero, the reduction would still not close the budget gap – leaving schools to bear the brunt of the shortfall. 2

So what did cause this crisis? One significant contributor is simple demographics. Overall enrollment in Newark schools (both charter and district) has increased significantly since 2011, while state and local aid has been flat. As a result, per pupil spending has been reduced across all Newark schools – charter and district alike. This unprecedentedly large reduction is further compounded by increases in salaries and other contractual expenses during the same period. The large percentage of special education students and English language learners served in our public schools has exacerbated the fiscal challenges.

A second factor is the impact of flat state and local aid combined with enrollment patterns that have shifted substantially between educational providers. As you know, charter school seats have expanded dramatically and now serve 30% of Newark’s children (40% of the city’s African American children) and are on track for continued growth. The signatories of this letter have taken differing positions on charter schools, but all agree that they are and will remain a significant part of the educational landscape in Newark. That being the case, all parties also agree that with such significant changes in funding and enrollment, it takes time for an organization as large and with as many legacy costs as the school district to reduce fixed costs to align with new realities.

If NPS’s costs were entirely variable, the loss of every student to a charter school would result in an equal and offsetting reduction in expenses. Some costs, however, do not decrease in direct proportion to enrollment, such as certain facilities costs. Others are embedded in long-term contracts that may take several years to change. As a result, at least in the short term, traditional public schools bear a disproportionate share of fixed costs, significantly reducing the amount each school has available to spend.

The good news is that the current structural budget crisis is a short- to medium-term problem. NPS accepts the long-term responsibility for expense reduction and creating the infrastructure needed to safeguard district schools. The district has begun to take a number of steps to internally stabilize the budget in order to deliver as promised. These initiatives are projected to reduce Newark’s projected $72 million deficit by around half.

The remaining $36 million would, as a matter of mathematical certainty, come out of school budgets. The effect of such a cut would be educationally profound. NPS schools would experience:

1. Over 600 school-based employee layoffs

2. Significant increases in class size

3. A significant reduction in non-academic programs

4. A significant reduction in instructional and student support services

As noted, the budget challenge is a transitional phenomenon: as the district evolves to one with an increasingly diverse array of magnet, traditional and charter public schools, it needs time to execute structural budget reductions and to migrate to a more variable cost budget (only Newark and Camden, each with over 25% charter market share, face this structural challenge). 3

The solution to a transitional challenge is “transitional aid.” In Newark’s case, such aid would be $36 million in FY17, with that amount scheduled to be reduced by 50% the following year and each year thereafter, with the total going to zero by FY20. The Transitional Aid could also be conditioned on NPS implementation of FY17 budget reductions of equal value.

Governor, the road to educational excellence in Newark has been a complex and choppy one. We have come a long way, however, and are working closely together across all schools in our community to make continued progress. Mayor Baraka and you have asked the Newark Education Success Board to activate the transition of the public schools in Newark back to local control. The board’s ability to design and execute this governance transfer depends in no small part on the fiscal health of NPS.

Fully appreciating the complexity of the statewide budget challenges you face, we are grateful for your consideration of this urgent request. We end by reiterating our shared value: that every child in Newark has access to a free, high quality public education. Now is not the time for retreat or reversal.

Sincerely,

Mayor Ras J. Baraka

Superintendent Chris Cerf

Councilman Amador

Councilwoman Chaneyfield Jenkins

Councilman Gonzalez

Councilman McCallum

Councilman Quintana

Councilman Ramos

Senator Teresa Ruiz

Assemblywoman Pintor

Assemblywoman Spencer

County Executive Joe DiVincenzo

Newark Board Chair Ariagna Perello

Newark School Board Vice-Chair Marques-Aquil Lewis

Newark School Board Member Crystal Fonseca

Newark School Board Member Khalil Rashidi

Newark School Board Member Phil Seelinger

 

 

Newark School Board Member Rashon Hasan 4

Black Alliance for Educational Options

Democrats For Education Reform

JerseyCAN

Newark Charter School Fund

New Jersey Charter School Association

Parent Coalition for Excellent Education

Teach For America – New Jersey

Great Oaks Charter School

KIPP New Jersey

Lady Liberty Charter School

Link Community Charter School

Marion P. Thomas Charter School

Merit Prep Charter School

Newark Legacy Charter School

Newark Prep Charter School

Paulo Freire Charter School

People’s Prep Charter School

Robert Treat Academy Charter School

Roseville Community Charter School

Uncommon Schools – Northstar

University Heights Charter School

CC: Commissioner David C. Hespe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 comments

  1. booklady

    Ms Shure,
    People could pose your question re policy to the NJ DoEd Intervention Officer for state-controlled districts Chris Snyder. Oh, Snyder is listed as Broad Academy Residency Class 2012-14.

    Snyder has bachelor’s from UPenn, MBA from Notre Dame. Why would someone w those credentials fiddle with state dept ed role? Unless folks in the know suggested that consultant, politically connected superintendent slots could be had?

  2. thetruth

    Things to keep in mind when reading this letter:
    1) The letter refers to a “structural deficit”—lets not forget that the state has been in charge of the school system for 20 years and as a result, the state is solely responsible for this deficit.
    2) Chris Cerf states that the district is “committed to aggressive budget reductions”–well, if this is the case why doesn’t he let the citizens of Newark know what budget reductions and initiatives he has in mind. In suburban communities where citizens have a voice in their schools, the citizens would demand to know what 36 million dollars in reductions were going to consist of. The people in Newark have no voice in what is happening to their schools and never will if charter schools take over the system.
    3) The letter refers to “excess teachers”–again if this is true, it is the fault of the state who runs the system. Surely, over 20 years the state could have reduced any alleged “excess teachers” simply by attrition.
    4) The letter talks in terms of reducing the “fixed costs” of the traditional public schools—I believe what is taking place is the dismantling of the traditional public schools via schools closings and allowing existing schools to crumble. The plan is to hand the system over to private charter networks. By the time local citizens regain control of their schools there won’t be much left to gain control over. Clearly the citizens will have no control over the privately operated charter schools that are replacing traditional pubic schools. Suburban communities would never allow this to happen.

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