Newark Public School Leaders Begin New School Year in Turmoil

Control of Newark, New Jersey’s public schools took a turn again this week when the new local advisory board made a move to block the pay of embattled state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson, writes John Mooney of New Jersey Spotlight.

The elected board took this action after it regained its powers over business and fiscal management of the district this summer.  This was a big step toward returning local control to the district which had been taken over by the state in 1994, but not surprisingly, nothing is going as planned in the struggling district.

The board was technically empowered in June as a part of a court ruling and because of improved conditions in the district, but the state and Anderson still hold the final authority. Under the transition plan, Anderson holds the ultimate veto power in case of a disagreement with the board.

“Should the State District Superintendent and Newark Advisory Board reach impasse on any action items relating to Fiscal management or operations, the State District Superintendent retains her ability to veto actions,” reads the agreement.

Acting state education commissioner David Hespe, in one of his first acts as commissioner, returned fiscal control to Newark, but said he would have to see the finalized minutes from the meeting to understand what exactly took place and what impact it would have.  Anderson and the board have been at odds ever since she was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie.

The state will still hold final say over selling or purchasing district buildings — a sore spot to those working to expand charter schools in the city.  The board would have to be informed before any deals were sealed, yet the superintendent would still have the authority to determine any legal settlements under $500,000 without board approval. The board would approve all “district disbursements”, but would be subject to the commissioner’s review.  The district’s budget would continue to be set by the superintendent, with input from the board.

Anderson’s salary freeze is in effect until she attends one of the board’s monthly meetings.  Naomi Nix, reporter for New Jersey Advance Media, said it was February when Anderson stopped attending board meetings because, Anderson said, they were not “focused on achieving educational outcomes for children”.  At another meeting, Anderson walked off the stage after being heckled and castigated by public speakers. Still, the board members think she should attend meetings and interact with the community.

Two hundred Newark students boycotted school and protested against Superintendent Anderson, says Craig D. Frazier of the Amsterdam News. Parents and community continue to push against the One Newark Plan that Anderson announced in December, which includes expansion of charter schools and consolidation of some public schools.

“We are building a movement to take back democratic local control of our schools,” said Kristin Towkaniuk, president of the Newark Students Union. “Our actions are demonstrating the community’s unrest over Chris Christie’s efforts to privatize our public schools.”

The student protest came on the heels of the failed transportation plan that exploded the first week of school.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka took over Newark in July and promised a new direction, a local approach that would connect the residents to the government and rebuild neighborhoods, according to Terrence Dopp and Allyson Versprille, reporters for Bloomberg News.  He began his term unable to stop a reorganization of the state-run school system, looking at $93 million in debt, and having no budget for 2014.

Baraka has been one of the loudest critics of Anderson and her One Newark plan.  He even wanted to remove Anderson from her position, saying that One Newark had been forced on the district without local input.