School & District Management

Plan to Revamp Newark District Hits a Nerve

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 17, 2014 9 min read
In this 2011 photo, Cami Anderson gestures while talking to the media after being named chief of the state-run Newark Public School system.
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Tensions in the Newark, N.J., district over a renewal plan being pushed by the state-appointed superintendent have exploded into an acrimonious debate, pulling state lawmakers, national union leaders, mayoral candidates, and disgruntled parents into its wake.

The catalysts in the beleaguered district are numerous. Some are the product of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s controversial One Newark plan, unveiled in December, which seeks to help balance the budget and create “100 excellent schools” for the district’s 38,000 students by reconstituting and merging schools, allowing charters to set up shop in existing buildings, and unloading crumbling school properties.

At the same time, the district expects to lay off hundreds of teachers over the next three years, a prospect that has ignited a battle over teachers’ seniority rights.

Other factors are also playing into the situation: upcoming elections for the city’s mayor, the legacy of years of contested state control of the district, and the currents of today’s divisive battles over urban education, in which school closings and teacher evaluation are flashpoints.

“Newark has become a poster child for what is happening in urban school reform,” said Alan Sadovnik, a professor of education, sociology, and public affairs at the Newark campus of Rutgers University. “On the one hand, the academic and policy critics say it is, or was, [former state Superintendent] Chris Cerf’s laboratory.

“On the other hand are a whole lot of differing political interest groups, community activists, the teachers’ unions, and business community,” Mr. Sadovnik said, “all of whom are coalescing around and against these reforms. It makes for a complex and tense environment.”

Hostile Reactions

Under state control since 1995, the Newark district has been through waves of improvement efforts, but its students continue to score poorly overall. Ms. Anderson, appointed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2011, was brought in to help turn the situation around.

The centerpiece of her plan to renew the district, dubbed One Newark, would allow charter schools to set up in several Newark school buildings, consolidate or relocate several schools, and permit families through an application process to enroll in both regular and charter public schools. The plan would also sell off some underutilized buildings.

The district points to a waiting list for charter schools in the thousands, rundown facilities, and falling enrollment as factors behind the measures.

One dimension in particular, district officials say, has been essentially misunderstood: All the charter “seats” envisioned in the plan were previously approved by Gov. Christie’s administration, so the plan would not go beyond that to further expand the district’s charter enrollments. Locating those charters in existing schools will help keep communities intact by offering high-quality local options, district officials say.

“The idea of a charter launch is to steer families back into those communities, instead of having their kids jumping on a bus, two buses, to travel downtown,” said Reuben Roberts, the district’s director of community engagement. “The easy thing would have been to shut these schools down and let them be empty; we are doing the hard part.”

The district says its expectation of letting hundreds of teachers go in the next three years is the product of overstaffing that former administrations refused to confront as enrollment declined.

In tandem, the proposals have faced increasingly hostile reactions from some in the community. Although the district says it held more than 100 meetings in developing the plan, parents are brimming with questions, said Frank Adao, the president of the Newark Parents Union, a newly formed group that has pushed back on the plan. Those questions run the gamut from how students will be transported to new schools safely, to the algorithm for matching schools and students, to how schools will be staffed.

For instance, “they’re saying only 25 percent of our students in the East Ward will be displaced” because of the enrollment changes, Mr. Adao said. “Well, how do you pick them? We get no answer.”

In a city where segregation runs deep, race has become a subtext in the battle, too. Some of the biggest changes are scheduled in wards in which the schools and teachers are predominantly African-American, said Bruce D. Baker, a professor in the education school at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Mr. Baker believes that the plan relies too heavily on school proficiency rates in determining which schools would be affected, and does not sufficiently consider other factors, such as student-achievement growth, transportation patterns, or facilities utilization. And the link between One Newark and the layoff plans remains murky, he contends.

“Staffing demands are linked to the organization and structure of the schools you’re operating. They have not specified what that connection is,” Mr. Baker said. “It makes it really hard to analyze what the heck they’re doing.”

Charters, Teacher Layoffs

Amid all the questions, some community activists see a confluence between the desires of state officials, who approve charters in New Jersey, and the state-controlled district’s plans to locate more charter schools in the district’s buildings. Meetings of the district’s elected school advisory board, which does not set policy, have devolved into ugly shouting matches, with some advocates accusing Superintendent Anderson of seeking a “privatization” agenda that would decrease district enrollment further and increase opportunities for charter operators.

Ms. Anderson said she would no longer attend the school advisory board meetings after facing racially tinged remarks during a January session.

Shavar Jeffries, the former chairman of the advisory board and now a candidate for mayor, attributes some of the uproar to a lack of broad support from other allies for the plan.

“When Cami has certain proposals she thinks are right for kids, she too often has to communicate them by herself,” rather than with lawmakers, members of the clergy, and parent groups, Mr. Jeffries said. “I don’t know that she can point to three significant stakeholders that can walk hand in hand with her. She needs to be more effective at that.”

District officials acknowledge the vociferous debate, but say it represents only a small fraction of community reaction to One Newark. More than 10,000 families have applied for the new choices offered by One Newark--dwarfing the number of individuals who have attended the advisory board meetings, the officials argue.

“I’m an educator, not a politician,” Ms. Anderson said in an emailed response to questions from Education Week. “In an election year where some are prioritizing running for office by fueling dysfunctional events rather than productive conversations, we will continue to find ways to collaborate with school advisory board members, families, and leaders to improve the lives of our students.”

Her remarks echoed the district’s claims that some of the outcry has been caused by political positioning for the mayoral election. Both Mr. Jeffries and his rival, Ras Bakara, are running on platforms largely critical of One Newark.

The most recent point of dispute concerns Ms. Anderson’s bid to employ a little-used state provision, known as an “equivalency” request, to circumvent a state law requiring that reductions in force, or layoffs, be made in the order of reverse seniority.

Ms. Anderson says she wants to preserve the best talent by dismissing teachers deemed ineffective under the city’s teacher-evaluation system rather than less senior teachers with better scores. But the move has infuriated the Newark Federation of Teachers, which contends that more senior, costlier teachers would be targeted.

“If a tenured teacher with 24 years is RIF’d, they will not receive their health benefits for the rest of their life; they would be disenfranchised for the rest of their life,” NTU President Joseph Del Grosso said. “How could that be fair?”

Union officials argue that poor performance can be dealt with under a 2012 state law that increased the length of teachers’ probationary period by one year and streamlined dismissal procedures. Anger over the district’s waiver bid increased after a former newspaper editor reported on his blog that the district planned to hire some 300 teachers from Teach For America to replace laid-off veterans, a claim reiterated by the NTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers. Both the district and TFA deny those claims.

Teach For America has no formal contract or agreement with the Newark district, and no plans to replace teachers, according to Fatimah Burnam, the TFA director for New Jersey. “It’s just a myth,” she said.

Some 65 TFA teachers currently work in the city’s regular public schools; another 100 work in charters in Newark. It is possible that the city could need to hire teachers in content areas suffering critical shortages even after any layoffs, however. And charters oversee teacher hiring on their own.

Mr. Del Grosso, once photographed alongside Gov. Christie and Ms. Anderson for inking a 2012 teachers’ contract that included performance bonuses, now appears to find little common ground with the governor and the superintendent.

The NTU president maintains that Ms. Anderson has exacerbated the district’s financial woes through the hiring of overpaid staff members and consultants. But the district points out that Mr. Del Grosso’s aggressive criticism of Ms. Anderson coincided with his near defeat in an internal union election shortly after agreeing to the new contract.

Under the Microscope

To some extent, the district’s tensions also reflect the consequences of years of state control. An active core of parent advocates has long protested what is now almost 20 years of state control in Newark. The district’s advisory school board last year filed a lawsuit to re-establish local control of the schools.

But the chances of winning back local control seem remote as state takeovers become more popular nationally.

“It’s the new reformers on the one hand, and one source of discontent are really old-line activists and parents who feel disenfranchised, who feel that Cami Anderson isn’t listening to them, that it’s top-down control coming from across the river,” said Mr. Sadovnik.

There are signs that, if anything, the situation will grow even more tense as the state legislature begins to put Ms. Anderson’s plans under its own microscope. Both chambers of the Democratic-controlled legislature approved a joint resolution last month stating that the equivalency-waiver bid “is an attempt to usurp the authority of the legislature.”

Meanwhile, state Sen. Ronald Rice, a Democrat, has sponsored legislation to require local school boards to approve the closing of schools. And he has said he will request subpoena power to investigate the operation of the district.

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Plans for Revamping State-Run District in Newark Hit Nerve

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