war of words

‘It’s enough now’: Mayor Baraka calls on state to halt Newark’s charter-school expansion

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Mayor Ras Baraka wants to hit the brakes on Newark’s charter-school sector, saying Thursday that its rapid growth could “suck the life out of traditional schools.”

The proliferation of the privately operated but publicly funded schools has contributed to gaping holes in the district’s budget, forcing school closures and staff reductions. Today, about 16,000 Newark students — or a third of the total — attend charter schools.

“It’s enough now,” Baraka said during an interview at City Hall, where he rekindled a charged debate about the proper size of the city’s charter sector. Arguing that charters should not “expand arbitrarily, aggressively, without any consideration for the traditional public schools,” he called on state officials to hit pause.

“Whatever they have approved — that’s it,” said Baraka, a Democrat who is running for re-election in May. “They shouldn’t go anymore until this is thought out.”

The number of Newark students in charter schools quadrupled over the past decade under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is an avid charter proponent. Thanks to future expansions that Christie officials approved before leaving office, Newark’s charter sector could serve more than 40 percent of city students within five years. (Only seven districts across the country had 40 percent or more of their students in charter schools last year.)

But, in recent months, the climate for charters has changed dramatically.

Christie has been replaced by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who proposed a “time out” for charter expansions during his campaign. Christie’s handpicked superintendent for Newark has left and a new one will be chosen by the city’s elected school board — which includes some outspoken charter skeptics. And now Baraka is calling on the state — which must sign off on any new charters — to halt their expansion.

He has made similar appeals before, which sparked outrage among charter supporters.

In 2015, he called KIPP New Jersey — one of Newark’s largest and top-performing charter operators — “highly irresponsible” for planning to open several new schools and enroll thousands of additional students. Shortly after, he asked then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe to deny KIPP’s expansion request, along with those of several other charter operators. (Hespe approved the plans.)

Newark Public Schools loses 90 percent of the funding attached to any student who opts into a charter school. This year, the district will transfer about a quarter of its budget — roughly $237 million — to charter schools. At the same time, new students have been enrolling in district schools even as state funding barely budged for several years.

That combination of lost revenue to charters, additional students, and flat funding has left the school system with $70 million budget shortfalls in recent years, forcing the district to shrink its workforce and reduce student services.

If state funding remains flat and charters “just grow, grow, grow,” Baraka said Thursday, “it will suck the life out of traditional schools — and we can’t have that.” (Murphy has proposed increasing state aid to Newark schools by 5 percent this year, but state budget negotiations are still ongoing.)

Baraka may be alarmed about the spread of charters — but he also recognizes that they are deeply popular with many of his constituents. Last year, about half of families applying to kindergarten listed charter schools as their top choice.

He has often said that he’s responsible for all Newark children — regardless of what type of school they attend — and just last month he gathered dozens of principals from district, charter, and private schools to talk about shared priorities. On Thursday, he said charters are a fact of life in Newark — whether he likes it or not.

“We can’t, like, burn the schools down — people’s kids are in there,” he said. “So we have to make sure they’re successful. And we’re all in this city, so we have to play in the sandbox together.”

He has also been willing to form political alliances with the charter sector. For the third year in a row, he has joined the city’s charter leaders and a North Ward councilman in backing a single slate of candidates in the school-board elections.

“The mayor’s not stupid,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “Charter-school people vote.”

On Wednesday, the union endorsed Baraka in his re-election bid. The NTU, along with New Jersey’s main teachers union, have called for a statewide moratorium on new charter schools and expansions of existing ones.

State education department spokesman Michael Yaple would not say whether the agency is considering a freeze on charter approvals. But he said the department is planning a “comprehensive review” of the state’s charter law, and pointed to recent comments by Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, who said he would not “put aside” applications for new charters.

KIPP New Jersey, which plans to grow its enrollment from about 4,100 students in Newark to 7,800 over the next few years, did not respond to a request to comment on Baraka’s statements. But in an interview earlier in the week, CEO Ryan Hill said that Baraka had been mostly “even-handed” toward charter schools.

“I think he knows our schools are doing good things for kids,” Hill said, “and those kids are his constituents and he has to be mayor of the whole city.”

Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, it will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The change, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.’”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”