Sources: Under Anderson’s leadership, Newark public schools “a fear state” as internal dissension mounts

NEWARK – When it comes to Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson’s leadership of the city’s public schools, the view from Newark’s streets in recent weeks to some resembles the view from the deck of the Titanic.

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 planned to reappoint her, and that he did not care about community criticism. 

Late Friday, the Christie administration announced that it had renewed Anderson’s contract for three more years, and that Anderson will receive a 1.6 percent annual increase on her base salary of $251,500. In a statement, Anderson said that she was “honored to reaffirm my commitment” to her work, a record she has publicly maintained has included improved graduation rates, the hiring of more than four dozen new principals and a teacher contact that includes salary reforms and provisions for merit pay. 

The announcement of Anderson’s new contract, however, also came with a notice from Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe that a new local “working group” would be created to advise Anderson and to immediately review Anderson’s school reorganization plan, known as One Newark, before its launch in September. 

The new contract also includes a year-to-year review of Anderson’s performance which includes a March 1 deadline for Hespe to inform Anderson if he plans to extend the contract, a continuation that comes at the “sole discretion of the commissioner.” 

Newark’s schools were placed under state control in 1995.

The timing of Anderson’s introduction of the controversial One Newark plan, which came just at the start of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign season, served as a Molotov cocktail thrown into Newark’s already combustible politics. It also served as a rallying point for many supporters of Ras Baraka, a teacher and Newark public school principal, who won the Newark mayoral election last month and who will be sworn in Tuesday. 

The One Newark 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. 

A wave of Newark public school student protests have called for the removal of Anderson, as well as for the termination of the Anderson-backed One Newark plan. These demonstrations culminated with a protest in the streets outside of the Newark Board of Education’s downtown headquarters at the end of May 2014 that looked like a smaller version of the protests in the streets of Paris in May 1968. 

In a series of interviews, several sources who requested anonymity told PolitickerNJ.com that dissent is not only evident outside of the city board of education’s headquarters at 2 Cedar Street. It is also within its walls, creating an atmosphere that is not only not conducive to any school reform plan, but simply not conducive to business as usual. 

One former Newark Public Schools employee described a breakdown of factions that have emerged during Anderson’s tenure that delineates four main categories of employees.

“There is a shrinking, very small group of about of four die-hard Cami supporters. This is the group that she engages with. Then there is another group of people at a senior-staff level who are just waiting Cami out, and who want to see her go,” the former employee stated, describing a total group of about 300 employees. “You have another group of people who over the last six months who have flat out quit and who have gone on to other opportunities. And the fourth group, unfortunately, is the largest group of more than 200 people at the central office who are just waiting for their pink slips because they’ve been told [by Anderson] they’re going to be let go.”

Documents released by the district in recent months have suggested that more than 1,000 Newark public school teachers could be let go over the next three years. Sources within both the Newark Teachers Union (NTU) and 2 Cedar Street have indicated that 200 central office employees and approximately 100 non-instructional workers could be let go soon. Monday marks the end of the current fiscal year. 

“The small core group of Cami supporters have built their careers around Cami. She’s had other loyalists, but those other loyalists have left because she will not have any dissent,” the former employee source said, specifically naming several members of her executive team who left for this reason. The source named Tia Morris, chief family and community officer; Richard Cuccolo, head of security; Ron Rapatalo, director of recruitment and selection; Michael Ryan, director of strategy; Matthew Frankel, executive director for communications; Sandra Rodriguez; executive director of Pre-K education and Tiffany Hardrick, assistant superintendent, as among those who have left over the past six months. 

“The way Cami engages the community left a lot of people uncomfortable,” the former Newark Public Schools employee said. “And because of that discomfort level, people just started to leave. Some people who have been in the system long enough, and whose jobs are not at risk, they’re not going anywhere and just waiting and hoping for Cami to leave sooner rather than later. Everybody else, they have nowhere else to go. They are people who have served nobly in the central office for years in areas like human resources, maintenance and making photocopies, people who live in Newark and dedicate their lives to the district. And without really any explanation, [the district] has determined that they have to go. Those pink slips are coming now, and if not now, then very soon.”

“It’s a fear state, characterized by scripted messages from the top down,” said a longtime Newark Board of Education employee with direct knowledge of the internal atmosphere at the central office. “Cami is very dynamic, very smart, and her theories [about urban education reform] seem plausible. But her practices are impractical. Her practices are anchored only in theory, not in the community that they serve. These theories are good in books and at conferences, but are not engaging folks in the process, so no one is vested in it. Instead, [she] just steamrolls.”

During the ongoing controversy surrounding the One Newark plan, Anderson has projected perseverance and strength in the face of her critics, saying that she will stay the course.
According to the longtime employee, Anderson’s public demeanor is mirrored in private meetings at 2 Cedar Street.

“Her public face and her private face are very much alike,” the longtime employee said. “She had at times what I call a semblance of humanity, where she let her guard down somewhat. But she’s so good at getting back up and showing that public face again. I think she cares about children, but I also believe that she believes that her way is the only way. If you’re running a school district, you should have been at least turned around one school, and I don’t think she has that under her belt in Newark. Instead, she’s closing schools. Cami Anderson’s executive team has almost been like a clandestine clan for reform. And reform can never work if you’re the only one who knows about it. How does that work?” 

Anderson will have work in the months ahead now that her contact has been renewed. But a longtime observer of Newark educational policy with knowledge of the internal debates within the city board of education’s central office said that there was an underlying theme to Anderson’s contract renewal. 

“There are a lot of people who don’t understand why she’s getting another contact at the state and local level. I know the state doesn’t want her, but that’s what the state has to do, because they don’t want it to be seen that we had [school] reform in Newark, and it didn’t work,” the longtime observer said. “There is a need for Gov. Christie and Anderson to be attached to reform that is successful. After all the money and time spent, they can’t have a failure on their hands.” 

The former Newark Public Schools employee, however, did not see the internal problems eating away at Newark’s school district as necessarily rooted in, or aggravated by, politics. 

“This is not political. This is not about policy. It’s not even about education. It’s become strictly personal. It is now all about [Anderson],” the former employee said. “People do not like Cami because her actions have created too many enemies. People on both sides of the city’s educational issues, some more pro-public school and some more pro-charter school, don’t want her here. It’s that simple.

“This is no longer about the future of the One Newark plan. It’s become about the future, and how much this woman could potentially destroy education reform in Newark and in the state,” the former employee added. “And as long as she’s still there, all the great accomplishments that have occurred in Newark, even the ones that have occurred before she arrived, are in jeopardy because she is such a divisive figure and such a vehemently hated person in the city. The bottom line is that the longer that she is here, the longer that a lot of the needed changes are in jeopardy. Both sides of the issues in terms of education will take a collective sigh of relief if she walks.”

Anderson responded to questions posed to her by PolitickerNJ.com via email. These questions included how the district accounts for such a disparity of opinions and behaviors in response to her leadership, as well as how the superintendent envisions moving forward with the One Newark plan given the reported internal dissension among central office employees, as well as among other district employees. 

“When I became superintendent three years ago, I made a commitment to the students and families of Newark to create a district with quality educational options for all students and ensure the fiscal stability of Newark Public Schools for years to come,” Anderson wrote in a statement emailed to PolitickerNJ.com on Monday. “I am honored to reaffirm my commitment to Newark students and families and to work in collaboration with all stakeholders to make NPS the epitome of excellence, equity, and efficiency.” 

Whether Anderson ultimately stays or goes, the former Newark Public Schools employee indicated that Anderson’s new contract might not ultimately be a new beginning, but a long goodbye.

“You have 77 clergy members in Newark who came out and said they don’t want Cami Anderson there. You have a school advisory board that doesn’t want her there. You have a new mayor that was pretty much elected on the premise of getting rid of Cami. And on top of that, [Gov. Christie] is toying with the idea of running for national office. At some point, as a boss, you’re going to have to ask yourself ‘Do I want to deal with this headache, or do I want to figure out, if need be, a quiet exit for [Anderson]?” the former employee source said. “This new contract could be a marker for that. This new contract could potentially provide the governor with an opportunity to get rid of her quietly. That could be the best scenario right now. Cami has always claimed to know what’s best for Newark. In her heart, it’s very possible that she may know that it’s time to go.”

Sources: Under Anderson’s leadership, Newark public schools “a fear state” as internal dissension mounts