School & District Management

Uproar Halts Vote On Newark Schools Chief

By Catherine Gewertz — February 19, 2003 5 min read
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The Newark, N.J., school board was supposed to vote last Thursday night on the future of Superintendent Marion A. Bolden, but it never got the chance.

Marion A. Bolden

Instead, what optimists had hoped would be a brief public vote and an adjournment turned into hours of agitated chanting by spectators, then shouting and shoving that became so intense that some people fled the building. The police had to restore order and escort board members to temporary safety, participants reported The vote was rescheduled for Feb. 25.

The raucous meeting in a packed middle school cafeteria only prolongs what has become a highly charged debate in the gritty, perennially beleaguered northern New Jersey city. The emotional pitch began building once board members, meeting in closed session on Jan. 31, recommended that Ms. Bolden be replaced with David Snead, the superintendent of the Waterbury, Conn., district. When the board met on Feb. 13 to re-cast that vote in public, as instructed by state officials, hundreds of Ms. Bolden’s supporters attended.

The elected, nine-member board met in private for nearly three hours with state Commissioner of Education William L. Librera as the crowd waited impatiently, chanting supportive slogans and waving placards and copies of her picture overhead. When the panel returned, and board Chairwoman Maryam Bey made the motion to recommend Mr. Snead for the job, spectators began shouting and pushing, and the chaos halted board business. No vote was taken.

The ultimate fate of Ms. Bolden, who was appointed superintendent by the state board in 1999, rests with the New Jersey board of education, which is expected to decide the matter next month after hearing from Mr. Librera. Any vote by the local board serves only as a recommendation, since the district of 42,000 students has been operated by the state since 1995.

But the Newark panel’s decision had taken on greater intensity because of the passionate, grassroots support Ms. Bolden enjoys, and because Mr. Librera had told board members he would abide by their choice. An official position issued by his office said “his intention” is to back the panel’s selection.

‘This Is Political’

Since last June, the campaign to keep Ms. Bolden has sparked several noisy demonstrations, a student walkout, and efforts by a local congressman to seek the governor’s help. Anger simmers on both sides.

To some longtime Newarkers, the wrangling suggests that the city’s notorious political patronage system is alive and well. They pointed to signs of progress under Ms. Bolden, a lifelong Newark resident and veteran educator: better test scores in some areas; the highest-ever level of high-school writing achievement; better attendance; a lower dropout rate; and a clean bill of fiscal health. With such a record, they wondered, why was her job in danger?

Noting that $1.6 billion in school construction money is expected in the district in the next few years, some of Ms. Bolden’s advocates speculated that board members allied with powerful union and City Hall interests were seeking to preserve ties of loyalty and to influence the awarding of contracts.

All five board members who voted on Jan. 31 to hire Mr. Snead were backed in their elections by a local service-employees union and the mayor. Neither has taken a public position supporting Ms. Bolden, but whispers around town said union and mayoral operatives were working against her.

“This is political, and she don’t play politics,” said Dorothy Kyle, a grandmother of three who is active in school affairs. “A lot of money will be pouring in here, and everyone wants a piece of the action.”

“The overwhelming feeling of the parents here is that they want Ms. Bolden to stay,” said Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the Newark Teachers Union, a 5,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “So it’s very strange that the advisory board, which represents the people of Newark, would try to circumvent the will of the people. They must be doing someone else’s bidding.”

Such arguments infuriate the school board chairwoman, Ms. Bey. The district needs new leadership, she said, because test scores aren’t improving fast enough, and because Ms. Bolden communicates too little, too late to board members on important district business.

“Those people saying it’s political are the ones that have made it political,” Ms. Bey said. “We voted our conscience.”

Board member Richard Cammarieri said board conversations about Ms. Bolden have little to do with students’ achievement. “It’s all about how she doesn’t respect them or communicate properly with them,” he said. “There is no education-related reason to want to get rid of this woman.”

‘Pointing the Finger’

Mayor Sharpe James, a Democrat who has held office for 17 years, did not return calls seeking comment on his position on Ms. Bolden. But Rahaman Muhammad, the new president of Service Employees International Union Local 617, which represents 4,000 non-instructional school employees, angrily denied the rumor that the union is undermining Ms. Bolden.

“Everybody is pointing the finger at us, and I just want to tell you, this leadership never met with board members to discuss this vote,” he said. “We have to work with the superintendent, whoever it is. We have nothing to gain from taking a position for or against the superintendent.”

Last June, Mr. Librera announced a national search for superintendent candidates for Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City as part of an effort to phase those districts back to local control after years of state operation. State officials narrowed a list of 35 candidates to four to pass on to the Newark board, automatically including Ms. Bolden in the competition. The panel dubbed her one of two finalists.

Meanwhile, the ranks of her backers expanded to include the Newark City Council, local unions representing teachers and administrators, various civic and civil-rights groups, and coalitions of clergy and of parents.

Ms. Bolden, for her part, said she will await the decision of the state board of education.

“We’ve started something here, and I don’t fold just because things get turbulent,” she said. “I am just going to continue to do what’s right and be the advocate for kids. I don’t want to be here if I can’t do that. In an urban district struggling like ours, how could you want me to do otherwise?”

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