TRENTON – Somewhere in the North Ward this month, Steve Adubato is giving a chalk talk to the troops reminiscent of Al Pacino’s oratorical turn in “Any Given Sunday,” but as the local school board race upticks into the condition red category, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, (D-29), Newark gets ready to sedately gavel a beginning to her Senate Education Committee.
The crown jewel of the North Ward Democratic Committee, Ruiz is also the Democratic Party’s statewide legislative point person on education reform.
As he attempts to stare down chief Dem Adubato back in Newark’s April 27 school board election, South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka throws out there the issue of vouchers as the dividing line between his slate and the slate backed by Adubato and Ruiz.
After initially voting “no” on an early version of the bill earlier this year, Ruiz voted in favor of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, branded the vouchers bill by its New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) detractors.
But Ruiz refuses to get bolted into the role of vouchers enabler.
“I’m looking at the totality of education reform,” she said. “Is the Opportunity Scholarship Act the answer? No. But my responsibility is to examine everything to create a positive impact. That is critical when it comes to underperforming schools. This is not an issue that arose, say, last Friday. This is years in the doing, and I must look at everything. Our responsibility is to try different variables.”
As part of that, she will soon introduce a teacher tenure reform bill, and look at other changes like longer public school days.
“It is not one single thing,” she said.
Another sticking point as far as Baraka is concerned is Acting Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. Baraka wants Gov. Chris Christie to dump him. Ruiz likes him early.
“How the information has come out leads to public questioning of what is going on over there,” said the senator, referring to news broken by the Star-Ledger that Cerf’s former company pocketed $500,000 for undertaking a study of Newark’s schools.
But Ruiz – a Newark native and factory worker’s daughter – wants to make sure the emphasis is on the existing crisis. At a community meeting last Saturday, Cerf seized on a statement by the director of the North Star Academy, roundly applauded by friends and foes alike in the auditorium of Louise Spencer Elementary School.
“I think that sums up the feeling in the room,” said Cerf, on the heels of a cry for change, whether it’s charters or public schools or some variation on the two.
That’s where Ruiz is on the issue.
“Nobody has a concrete thing to do, we just know we must do something different,” she said. “There is no silver bullet.”
Same party enemies of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo’s political organization (where Ruiz works as deputy chief of staff) say Adubato and DiVincenzo are too close to Christie to enable Ruiz to do anything other than affix the organizational line to the agenda.
But Ruiz, who appeared mortified last year as she stood beside Christie at a press conference while the Republican railed against President Barack Obama, said working across the aisle is just part of the process.
“It is critical for every individual in government to work with all levels of government, certainly there are times when there are going to be differences of opinion,” the senator said.
What are they?
But at the moment, the hearing was starting.