The New Jersey state board of education faces an unenviable task this week as it weighs who should lead the Newark school district.
Months of heated demonstrating and debating in the struggling northern New Jersey city have delivered the state board to this spot: It can choose an incumbent superintendent who has passionate, grassroots support but is opposed by the majority of members on the local school board, or select an out-of- towner who is unwanted by thousands of angry parents and teachers.
At its March 5 meeting, the state panel was expected to consider whether to reappoint Marion A. Bolden, the Newark native they chose to lead the embattled, state- run district in 1999, or replace her with David Snead, a former Detroit schools chief who now leads the 17,000-student Waterbury, Conn., schools.
Either choice risked alienating pivotal swaths of the Newark community.
The nine-month fight over the superintendency has filled the air with rhetoric and accusations. On Feb. 25, in a school auditorium packed with hundreds of Ms. Bolden’s cheering backers, the local board voted 5-4 to recommend Mr. Snead, a move that reignited anger among Ms. Bolden’s supporters, who believe she has begun to turn around the academically and financially troubled district. (“Uproar Halts Vote on Newark Schools Chief,” Feb. 19, 2003.)
“People are upset. They’re outraged. And they have a right to be,” said the Rev. David Jefferson, the pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church and a leader of a coalition to retain Ms. Bolden.
The sizzling emotions of the struggle have reached south to the state capital of Trenton, where Commissioner of Education William L. Librera wrestled last week with what he should recommend to the state board. He had hoped that the process of involving the local board in the choice of a superintendent would forge consensus as the 42,000-student district phases back to local control after more than seven years in state hands.
“I’m deeply troubled by how divided the community is over this matter,” he said. “A 5-4 vote couldn’t be worse. Now I have to make my decision based on who is best able to lead this district forward and address those divisions over the next three years.”
Healing the rift that was torn open by the superintendency battle will be critical to progress in the district, said Katrina Kelley, the director of the National School Boards Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education.
“The board will have to be very clear about the mission and vision of the district,” said Ms. Kelley. “Especially if the decision goes in a way that’s different from what the community is desiring, the board and the superintendent will really have to spend time mending those community fences.”
Who will be mending fences with whom, however, was up in the air last week. After Mr. Snead expressed interest in the Newark job, his local board extended his contract. He remained noncommittal last week, saying he would wait for details of the Waterbury contract offer before deciding whether to stay there.
As the Newark school community kept a hopeful eye on Trenton, anger over the divisive battle still simmered. Members of the local advisory board minority continued to rail against the majority, contending that the majority’s opposition to Ms. Bolden arises from their political connections to the mayor and to unions that want to influence the awarding of local school construction contracts.
“Those five members of the board are not working in the best interests of our children,” said board member Dana Rone, who supports Ms. Bolden. “They’re doing the bidding of the politicians.”
Board Chairwoman Maryam Bey is tired of those accusations. She and others in the majority back Mr. Snead, she said, because they believe he is better qualified to lead the district, and because Ms. Bolden hasn’t produced sufficient improvement in student achievement.
“She earns almost $200,000 a year,” said Ms. Bey. “For that kind of money, we should see better results. I don’t want slow and steady. I want to see fast and quick.”
Ms. Bolden lamented the length and volatility of the search and wants a selection made so the city can move on.
“This whole process has been as disruptive as anything I’ve ever seen,” she said.
As difficult as the past nine months have been, however, some longtime community activists see the outpouring of emotion as a catalyzing moment for a city whose residents have long felt politically powerless.
Mr. Jefferson predicted that the community’s strong feelings will echo in the spring school board contest, where three members are up for re-election, as well as in future mayoral and gubernatorial races.
“It’s extraordinarily positive that this entire community is focusing its attention on one of the most critical issues facing the city of Newark: the educational system,” the Baptist minister said.
“This has created a strong sense of solidarity in our community and made people think about how we own our own destiny. It will not go away. It’s a super turning point.”