THE DEAL: Baraka and Cerf become school “reform” allies

Baraka meets with Christie. shortly after the mayor's election.
Baraka meets with Christie. shortly after the mayor’s election.

The deal last June was a stunner for many reasons–Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Republican Gov. Chris Christie cut a bargain to bring in former state schools chief Christopher Cerf, a charter school champion, to be the city schools superintendent. It didn’t initially make a lot of sense but, after the joint Cerf/Baraka announcement later today, Tuesday, city residents might get a better idea of what happened behind closed doors last spring that led to today’s surprising result: Baraka and Christie have become partners in school reform.

As this site reported last week,  Baraka and Cerf will jointly promote a so-called “community schools initiative” aimed at making just one neighborhood in the city, its impoverished South Ward,  into a showcase for Baraka’s idea for school reform: local schools that also serve as centers for providing health care and other services to neighborhood residents.

Former Mayor Cory Booker, Cerf, and Anderson--architects of the privatization of many Newark schools.
Former Mayor Cory Booker, Cerf, and Anderson–architects of the privatization of many Newark schools.

And here’s another shocker: The Cerf/Baraka plan will seek at least some of its funding for the plan from funds given to the city by Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $100 million to Newark to jumpstart what was supposed to be a plan–backed by former Mayor Cory Booker–to make Newark the “charter school capital of the nation.” Recent reports indicate that about $30 million of that money still exists in the accounts of the Foundation for Newark’s Future (FNF). FNF’s president, Kimberly Baxter McLain, will be part of the joint announcement at City Hall the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Baraka became mayor in the May, 2014, election primarily because of his opposition to state control, personified by then state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson–a woman who was appointed city schools chief by Cerf in 2011 when Cerf was state education commissioner. Many of the actions taken by Anderson–including the closing of public schools, expansion of charters, failure to follow state law and regulations–were either outlined in a plan Cerf wrote for the state when he was a private consultant (and paid by the same Zuckerberg money) or condoned by him when he was commissioner. And, while Cerf was state education commissioner, he explicitly endorsed Anderson’s actions.

Cerf, in short, was Anderson’s puppet master until Chris Christie sent him in to finish what Anderson started.

Crowds like this one last May could have sunk Christie--instead Christie got peace and Newark's charters got a future.
Crowds like this one last May could have sunk Christie–instead Christie got peace and Newark’s charters got a future.

The anger aimed at Anderson boiled up into a massive student protest movement that, in May, almost led to the closing down of the city and the interstate highways surrounding it. By refusing to  keep the highways clear and explicitly supporting the students, Baraka emerged as a champion of anti-state sentiment.

Then, a few weeks later, Baraka and Christie–a presidential candidate who needed peace in New Jersey’s largest city while he was campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire–cut their deal. Anderson was out. Cerf, despite his recent appointment as a national leader of a charter school lobbying organization, would replace her. A joint committee–but one dominated by pro-charter Christie appointments–would find a “roadmap” to local control. It was called the Newark Educational Success Board (NESB).

Christie got peace at home. No embarrassments while he is away. Indeed, he recently won the endorsement of the influential Manchester Union-Leader. The newspaper cited his ability to work with conflicting  groups–“Chris Christie is a solid, pro-life conservative who has managed to govern in liberal New Jersey, face down the big public unions, and win a second term. Gov. Christie can work across the aisle, but he won’t get rolled by the bureaucrats.”

Wouldn’t be a tragic irony if Christie’s campaign got a boost from the Newark deal? Now Christie can even say he worked with the state’s largest school district and a once “hostile” mayor–that’s what Christie called Baraka–to bring “reform” to its classrooms.

Baraka’s  comments after his June deal with the governor were more critical of those who criticized the bargain–including this site–than of the state. He appeared at a July rally called to denounce Cerf’s appointment, but would say nothing critical about Cerf. Instead, he called those who were suspicious of the deal “crackpots.”

Jose Leonardo, vice president of Newark Students Union. speaks to crowd at City Hall. He was named to the Newark Educational Success Board.
Jose Leonardo, vice president of Newark Students Union. speaks to crowd at City Hall. He was named to the Newark Educational Success Board.

The anti-state movement all but collapsed after Baraka’s conversion. The committee created to find a way to local control may have co-opted some of the most prominent critics of state control, including Jose Leonardo, the president of the Newark Student Union (NSU); parent activist Grace Sergio, and Mary Bennett, the head of an anti-state coalition.  The panel imposed a gag order on itself so its deliberations remain a secret.

Baraka stopped attending the school board meetings he had used as a platform to demand an end, for example, to the “One Newark” enrollment plan. His criticisms of state control became muted–then non-existent.

And, now,  just months after Baraka threatened to send police into Anderson’s office to escort her out of the city, Baraka and Cerf, the man who brought Anderson to Newark, are jointly launching an educational program aimed at Baraka’s home turf, the city’s South Ward.

This is the announcement from  the mayor’s office about Tuesday’s planned press conference:


Program will create and support Community Schools to offer comprehensive services and programs to empower vulnerable students; Health social services and family programs will also be offered.

Newark, NJ – November 25, 2015 – Mayor Ras J. Baraka, Newark Municipal Council Members, Chief Education Officer Dr. Lauren Wells, State Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf, and other dignitaries will launch the “South Ward Community Schools Initiative” on Tuesday, December 1, at 10 a.m., in a City Hall First Floor Rotunda press conference. City Hall is located at 920 Broad Street in Newark’s Downtown.

The initiative is designed to create and support K-12 Community Schools in the South Ward vulnerable students, school success, and positive youth development. The schools will have a vigorous curriculum and core instructional program, high standards and expectations, and an integrated focus on academics and family support. These schools will offer before-and after-school programs, health and social services, and enrichment programs for families will also be offered. The schools will also operate weekend and summer programs. The program is the beginning of the commitment to community schools as a solution to the challenges facing Newark public schools. The program model will also incorporate efforts to address socio-economic barriers facing student populations.

WHO: Mayor Ras J. Baraka Municipal Council Members Chief Education Officer Dr. Lauren Wells State Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor Foundation for Newark’s Future President and CEO Kimberly Baxter McLain

WHAT: Will launch the “South Ward Community Schools Initiative”

WHEN: Tuesday, December 1, 2015, 10 a.m.

WHERE: City Hall, First Floor Rotunda, 920 Broad Street, Newark.

Wells wrote a comprehensive proposal about community schools in September, although it did not seek to limit the project to the South Ward. That was followed by an article promoting the idea in the educational blog, The Hechinger Report, written under Baraka’s byline a few weeks ago–that article also didn’t mention the limitation to the South Ward.

Among the questions that will be raised  by the joint Cerf/Baraka initiative are:

What will be the role of charter schools? The KIPP charter school chain, known as TEAM Academy, has a number of  charters in the South Ward and plans to open five more in the city.  Baraka did not object to plans for another chain, Uncommon Schools, to open a new school within sight of City Hall. And the so-called Brick Academy will seek to convert its two schools–Avon and Peshine, both in the South Ward–to charters in a few months.

Who will control the initiative? Not included among those slated to speak at the press conference are the elected members of the Newark school board. No member of the board has said a word publicly about the initiative at recent school board meetings. Wells’ description of the proposal makes it clear it will be run by City Hall in cooperation with the state administration–and how does that fit with the promised return of local control?

Why just the South Ward? That section of the city is not alone in facing educational problems associated with poverty, racial isolation, and underfunding of state aid.

Why would Zuckerberg money go to Baraka? Will there be conditions? How did the mayor persuade the FNF to participate?

What about state funding?  How can Baraka complain about the Christie administration’s shortchanging of Newark’s public schools now that he has joined in an alliance with Christie’s man? What about the $37 million in state aid taken from public schools by Christie and given to charters? Will Baraka ask for special state funding for the South Ward schools?

Was this part of the original deal between Christie and Baraka? The joint statement issued by the mayor and the governor at the end of the June made an oblique reference to community education, suggesting that the issue was discussed by them. What else was?

How will this affect local control? Baraka has promised to support an elected school board when and if local control is returned to Newark. But he clearly has taken a major role in developing this proposal. What does that mean for local control run by a freely elected board? Or will Baraka simply control the school board by continuing to give jobs to board members as he already has to three?

What happened to grass-roots development of educational reform?  Good or bad, the Cerf/Baraka initiative is clearly a top-down approach to education reform developed behind closed doors. Organizations–like PULSE-NJ–that would have been expected to participate in developing the plan have been excluded.

Lauren Wells
Lauren Wells












  1. Is mayoral control Baraka’s definition of local control? Will the district be split three ways between charters schools, community schools and traditional district schools? How does circumventing the elected Advisory Board, community, student and teacher voices further democracy? The divide and conquer plan launched by Christie is brilliant in its scope. Maybe Baraka should head up to New Hampshire to campaign for his buddy. Hasn’t Zuckerberg caused enough damage to the Newark Public Schools? News from Newark never ceases to amaze.

  2. I wish the community schools well. Yet I wonder:
    •Kimberly McLain’s prior experience was VP Newark Charter Schools Fund; national staff Teach for America; Credit Suisse; KPMG. Her predecessor at Foundation for Newark’s Future Greg Taylor, was paid $382K from Zuckerberg + matching funds. What is McLain being paid? Is she paid more than Christie’s Superintendent cap?

  3. A Google search of Alliance for School Choice links to, which shows Cory Booker and Peter Simon as former directors. Funders include William E Simon Foundation 2004-2011 for $1.225 million.
    For Bob’s younger readers, William Simon was Richard Nixon’s Treasury Secretary and later a master of leveraged buyouts. His son Peter is a NJ State Board of Ed member.

  4. Shouldn’t we be excited Bob? Didn’t you want the city to have it’s say in the reform of education, as opposed to the outsiders? The South Ward schools definitely need reforming, as they are the worse in the city, the state and the nation! Or does it matter more to you, who the players are, as opposed to the job getting done. If Cerf, the leader of our education system here in Newark and Baraka, the Mayor who vows to stop the outsiders and include the entire community in on this conversation, get together to do what is best, why would you have a problem with that?

    Bob Braun: Cerf is an outsider. Lauren Wells is an outsider. There is not a lot of evidence the “entire community” will be included.

    1. We should be very excited Harriet (Tubman)…! Public funds are being used (Derailed) for Kipp Charter schools to own and expand their multi-million dollar real-state portfolio! We should be excited about outsiders destroying a public good and replacing it with an entity that has 0 accountability to the very public who funds it! We should also be excited about Cami, Serfs, and the 175.000 K “assistant idiots” mismanaging the budget…! Or perhaps we should celebrate a “clown” of a mayor who was seduced by a piece of scrap thrown at him or a teacher’s union in bed with Cerf…. Or perhaps we should be happy with uneducated simpletons like you? Who pops up here and there on social media to praise charters and attack the very people who are trying to expose the naked truth!

      Here is a quote for you: I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.

      You’re beyond saving!

  5. This plan sounds similar to the initiative then-principal Baraka implemented at Central HS. Ms. Wells was involved in that effort – I don’t recall her title at the time. Central was and is, of course, a public school; it’s possible the proposed community schools will continue as public schools. I certainly hope so.

    The Central HS program was summarily cancelled by the superintendent at the time, Anderson, although under the model Central’s graduation rate, attendance rate, and test scores improved substantially.

  6. Mayor Baraka is walking a very fine line. It’s not clear whether or not he is fully aware of all the forces at work leading to a return to local control and what that means. His local control agnosticism is enough to give pause for concern, because by his own admission, he doesn’t seem to care how local control happens, just that it does. And it may be semantics, but for local control to mean anything, the locals ought to be the ones in control. If the gentrification of downtown Newark is any indication, for the people who have been fighting for a return to local control, when it does return to local control, they may find themselves contending with new residents for equal representation, and still find themselves as powerless as they’ve ever been.

    I’ve written before about how the situation facing Newark closely resembles what happened to New York City’s former Board of Education. In New York City, the city Board of Education along with each of 32 individual publicly elected district school boards were dissolved and replaced with a centrally governed Department of Education wholly managed by the Mayor’s office. The individual district boards were replaced by a group very similar to the NESB (Newark Educational Success Board), The PEP (The Panel For Educational Policy), a panel created by then Mayor, Michael Bloomsburg to advance his own educational reforms. What both assemblies have in common is that their members are appointed by the government leadership. In NYC, the PEP has 13 seats; five for borough representatives, each appointed by their respective borough presidents, with the balance of eight member seats being appointed directly by the Mayor, including a non-voting seat held by the city schools chancellor. In Newark, there are nine seats; five appointed by the governor, and four appointed by the Mayor.

    With the governor’s term coming to and end whether or not he resigns to pursue his Presidential delusions, or whether he completes his term, it is still unclear should the state continue to control Newark’s Public Schools beyond the Christie administration, whether or not NESB will stay around, and whether or not the [new] governor will continue to appoint any members.

    Kimberly McLain will be leaving The Foundation For Newark’s Future when it exhausts the balance of $30 million on the community schools initiative and closes its doors in 2016. It would appear that they’ve been working on this community schools initiative since June. In an interview with NJSpotlight, Kimberly McLain details the Foundation’s strategic road map without revealing what the Mayor’s plan was. The happy coincidence for Cerf, is that the $30 million just about covers the $20 million deficit left over from the original $70 – $100 million deficit the district was still trying to figure out how to resolve after Cami Anderson’s tenure.

    1. @ Mr. Outside. You have made some very knowledgeable points. The main two questions I have to coincide with your brilliant analysis is

      1. Who has oversight of this project. By using Zuckerberg’s money for this initiative it becomes, basically, private enterprise. Right now that means that the State of New Jersey and the Federal Department of Education will have limited say in how this project is instituted.

      2. As stated by Mr. Outside, who picks up the running of this project once all the administrative players move on. For example, Cory Booker was a prime initiator of the chaos that has occurred in the Newark Public Schools over the past five years by bringing Zuckerberg and Christie together to devastate the traditional public schools in Newark. But when opportunity knocked, he left to become a U.S. Senator with a term of six years. Bye, Bye Newark. So, the first order of business is to establish will the leaders of this project be appointed (e.g. like Cerf) or elected (e.g. like Baraka).

  7. While the idea seems genuine, this just seems like another stunt by the Baraka administration. No public input, No sustainability plan? What will happen after the FNF dissolves? How will Baraka leverage more funding to really continue this project city wide? Why only the South Ward? At the press conference, the Mayor stated that we cannot leave any children behind. What about kids and schools in the West Ward or other Wards for that matter. So many questions and not enough answers. Sorry to say but this will end in another failed initiative ignited by the Baraka administration because while they can win campaigns, they have not shown that any of their major initiatives are sustainable or successful.

  8. Follow the Money! What does Zuckerberg and Facebook get from all this? I suspect Baraka has made a deal for his political future at our expense that favors the pro-charter school “reformers. Is Newark is the next New Orleans? As Rahm Emanuel said, “Never let a crisis go to waste!”

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