NEWARK - In the wake of ongoing Newark public school student protests calling for the removal of Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson, a 2011 Gov. Chris Christie appointee to oversee the state-run school district, as well as for the termination of the Anderson-backed One Newark school reorganization plan, Newark Mayor-elect Ras Baraka took stock of a shifting and increasingly volatile situation centered around the future of Newark's schools.
"There has been no communication at this point between [Baraka and Anderson]. Things have been gong on with the school system. I have had meetings with [acting New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe] and other advocates about we can get to move the city forward so we can hit the ground running on July 1," Baraka said during an impromptu press conference in downtown Newark following the ceremonial signing into law of Newark's paid sick leave ordinance. "Hopefully, we can get this thing worked out before then."
Anderson was appointed to head the state-run Newark school district, New Jersey's largest, by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. The governor publicly stated in September 2013 that he plans to reappoint her, and that he did not care about community criticism. Newark's schools were placed under state control in 1995.
The One Newark school reorganization plan, announced by Anderson in December, includes the expansion of charter schools, which already serve approximately 20 percent of the city's students, as well as the closure or consolidation of certain public schools.
Anderson has also proposed to lay off approximately 1,000 Newark public school teachers over the next few years, which she wants tied to teacher effectiveness as well as seniority.
The timing of the introduction of the One Newark plan, which came just at the start of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign season, was an accelerant for Newark's already combustible politics and served as a rallying point for many supporters of Ras Baraka, a teacher and Newark public school principal, who won the Newark mayoral election earlier this month.
The Newark Promise plan, an alternative school reorganization initiative which is being promoted by the Newark Student Union and other activist groups, calls for the return of local control to the Newark school system, improvements for school district facilities and less focus on the results of standardized tests, among other things.
The goals of a student sit-in last week at Newark Board of Education headquarters called for the termination of both the One Newark plan and Anderson. One student goal was achieved: Tuesday's meeting with Hespe, who told students that he could be contacted for a follow-up meeting.
Yet the students, who said that there were planning on other acts of civil disobedience in the future if their demands are unfulfilled, felt that future student demonstrations could be necessary following a meeting in which students representatives felt that they had been treated by Anderson with "utter disrespect."
Baraka commented on the increasingly hostile interactions between the student protest leaders and Anderson.
"It's absolutely not productive," Baraka said. "[Anderson] has been [reportedly] trying to say that adults are sponsoring this. But it's becoming more and more clear that the students are taking on this on their own. It's actually insulting to the students to believe that they don't have the wherewithal to think and to organize for themselves. Something has to be done immediately about what's happening."
Christie has been steadfast in his support of Anderson up to this point despite the increasing turbulence surrounding Anderson's stewardship on the city's public schools. Baraka and Christie reportedly had a "very positive" first meeting six days after Baraka's victory in the Newark mayoral election, according to a PolitickerNJ.com anonymous source who had direct knowledge of the meeting.
When asked by PolitickerNJ.com if he was disappointed with Christie's stance on Anderson, Baraka, who has been vocal about his belief that Anderson should go, looked to the future.
"I think that we're going to get to a resolution that all of us agree to," Baraka said. "I had a very promising discussion with [Hespe] and people on his team about the fact-finding that they're doing in the city. Hopefully, the conclusions will be obvious. I would say that the longest we have is a week and a half, maybe two to get this thing resolved or we're going to be moving forward into summer school, and a school year, with a plan that's half-baked that just won't work in this city, particularly with the leadership that we have.
"[Anderson] has lost the faith and the trust of the people in this city - not just the elected officials, but the clergy and the parents," Baraka added. "It's very difficult to regain that. We have to be an example of how we do [educational] reform in the state of New Jersey on both sides, no matter who agrees with what. The governor made it clear he's in charge of Newark's public schools, but he also said that we have a new [state education] commissioner, and that's promising. It's not just about Cami Anderson. She's the beginning. Ultimately, it's about the state removing itself from control of Newark's public schools. The impediment to [moving forward] right now is the superintendent."
“I am still hopeful that the Mayor-elect and I can sit down and come together on behalf of students who deserve excellence...now," replied Anderson in a written statement. "He has said numerous times that he supported the work happening in the district, but when he entered the campaign season he was quick to denounce the very policies that helped him move his school. Now just a week after saying he would be willing to find common ground, he continues to publicly vilify me. His definition of cooperation and collaboration is confusing to say the least."
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