AFTER MORE THAN 20 YEARS, STATE TAKEOVER OF NEWARK SCHOOLS IS OVER

Students at McKinley Street School in Newark

AFTER MORE THAN 20 YEARS, STATE TAKEOVER OF NEWARK SCHOOLS IS OVER

By Karen Yi kyi@njadvancemedia.com,
NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

A new chapter is beginning for the state’s largest public school system. The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to end its takeover of the Newark school district and begin the
transition to return control to the locally-elected school board after 22 years. “Today it ends,”
said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “And local control returns. And what does that mean?
It means a lot of work.”

The move comes after decades of fierce battles with the state and boiling frustrations among Newarkers who had little leverage over their schools. Key in the power shift: The local school
board will now have the ability to hire and fire its own superintendent.

“The people of Newark, we have some self-determination,” Mayor Ras Baraka said. “We now have control over our own children’s lives. It doesn’t mean that we won’t make mistakes or there won’t be any errors or obstacles … we have the right to make mistakes, we have the right to correct them ourselves. We think that we know what’s best for the kids in our city.”

In a packed room, filled with education advocates, political leaders and the local school board, the state board voted Wednesday to begin a months-long transition plan to hand over the reins
of the district. The room erupted in applause.

“This is really a historic moment,” state-appointed Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf said, citing major improvements. “The Newark public school students have indeed made great progress as reflected in virtually every measurable statistic that one cares to look at.”

Under state control, a revolving door of state-appointed superintendents with veto power over school board decisions have rankled residents and further angered a community eager for better-performing schools.

The district’s last schools superintendent, Cami Anderson, was an embattled figure during her four turbulent years at the helm. Politicians at all levels — including Baraka — and activists called for her removal, criticizing her drastic reform efforts and failure to engage the community.

Cerf, appointed in 2015, has struck a more collaborative tone with the city, earning praise from Baraka and other city leaders.

Under his tenure, student scores on the state standardized exam known as PARCC have risen, as have graduation rates. The district increased its retention rate of effective and highly-effective teachers to 96 percent, submitted a balanced budget and sold closed school buildings to plug the deficit.

“Newark’s leaders are uniting around the common goal of sustaining and improving these opportunities for students,” Cerf said. “There’s a lot of work that lies ahead.”

Cerf’s $255,500 three-year contract expires June 30, 2018 but allows for changes during the transition to local control. It’s unclear how long he’ll remain with the district.

Baraka, a former high school principal, has called for a national superintendent search though did not exclude the possibility of a Newarker earning the job.

School Advisory Board Chair Marques-Aquil Lewis told NJ Advance Media the board, too, has prepared and trained to shed its “advisory” title.

“We’re very equipped and we’re ready for this challenge that we’re facing,” said Lewis, whose son began attending Newark public schools this year. “Today marks a new day, a new era where we can really see what the comunity can really do and be involved in. This is a new day for our city.”

A different district

The state board vote was widely-praised and anticipated by city leaders and school officials who have clamored for return to local control for years.

District leaders say student performance has markedly improved and the district is far from the one that prompted the state’s seizure in 1995.

A state probe back then accused school officials in a 1,798-page report of mismanagement, neglect and corruption.

“Children in the Newark public schools are victimized by school and district leaders who force them to endure degrading school environments that virtually ensure academic failure,” the report charged. It found conflicts of interest, crumbling school facilities and inequitable distribution of resources.

Over time, the district has regained control of some of the five areas evaluated and controlled by the state. Personnel, fiscal management and operations have all been returned to the district and on Wednesday the state board agreed to give back the remaining two — instruction and program, and governance.

“Good riddance,” said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union. But said he planned to continue holding the board accountable and help taxpayers understand what’s happened over the past 20 years.

Outside the meeting, activists gathered to remind the public they, too, were instrumental in moving the district forward, chanting, “I believe that we have won.”

Denise Cole, a Newark activist, said she’d continue to be vigilant to ensure the local board was following policy and not falling into the same traps that prompted the takeover in 1995. She said the board needed to educate the public on the next steps so they can be empowered and involved.

“This is an opportunity for us to seize the moment,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to choose a leader.”

Moving forward

With the OK from the state Board of Education, Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington and the the district will create a transition plan detailing the transfer of power and the process for finding a superintendent.

Once the commissioner presents the plan to the board, it will officially receive control of the district. The board will then have the power to pick a superintendent who is in charge of the day-to-day management of the schools.

The district must also hold a referendum next year to let the public vote on whether they want an elected board or one appointed by the mayor.