TRENTON – A sense of the controversy generated by the One Newark school reorganization plan was crystallized by a comment made by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz during the testimony of Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson as she testified on Tuesday before the state legislative Joint Committee on the Public Schools.
“I am so angry,” said Ruiz (D-29), who represents parts of Newark. “I have been walking people through this process since September. I don’t how what I see is so different from what you see.”
Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to appoint Cami Anderson to head Newark’s public schools in 2011 has created what many see as an educational impasse, especially after Anderson launched her school reorganization scheme, known as the “One Newark” plan, in September. Meant to improve the city’s public education system by increasing student options, including an open enrollment initiative, the plan has left many parents angry, confused and frustrated. A widespread community backlash included vociferous student, parental and teacher protests.
Anderson attempted to explain the plan as a way to “repurpose” the struggling school system and preserve neighborhood schools in the face of grave financial challenges, including what she said was the loss of approximately $30 million in revenue because of the growth of charter schools when she first took office.
“I didn’t come to do anyone’s bidding,” Anderson said. “I came to do the right thing.”
But committee member state Sen. Ron Rice (D-28) expressed frustration, as did other committee members, at what he saw as a lack of transparency during the enactment of the One Newark plan.
“You need to get your house in order,” Rice, who also represents parts of Newark, said. “We’re not here to be disrespected.”
Ruiz continued to lace into Anderson, turning to the question of school leadership and administration.
“Leadership changes happen. I don’t question you on that. But you’re saying that you support the autonomy of principals, and they still don’t have a contract. And in September, Barringer [High School] was burning, but you weren’t there,” Ruiz said, referring to serious administrative challenges that occurred when the school year opened at the North Ward school. “It’s January. What can we do about the learning loss of students, and how do we make it up to them?”
“This has been a challenging launch,” replied Anderson, saying that she has tried to work with administrators to try to improve the situation following the implementation of the One Newark plan. “I will take the responsibility for the rough launch.”
State Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-12) suggested to Anderson that the augmentation of a legislative liaison position to the state-run Newark school district could be helpful.
State Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28) added another alternative that would be an even more hands-on way to address the issues created by the introduction of the One Newark plan.
“The schools need a visit,” Caputo said, suggesting that New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe travel to Newark in the near future. “The only way to determine the validity of what is being said is to go ask in person.”
State Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-29), a former Newark schools advisory board member who represents parts of the city, asked Anderson when was the last time the superintendent had been to a public board meeting.
“I don’t know, I’d have to look,” said Anderson. “I haven’t been to a meeting in quite some time. I listen to people who disagree with me. It’s part of my job.”
“It is part of your job to attend board meetings,” Pintor Marin replied. “That’s the main problem. There is no sell factor for the Newark Public Schools [about the One Newark plan] when you don’t attend.”
State Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34), a Newark native from the South Ward who excoriated Anderson’s record particularly on her staff’s salary increases while Newark’s schools continue to struggle, underscored the tense tone of the hearing when she gave her take on the superintendent’s ability to take and process the criticism generated by the One Newark plan.
“You have to develop an alligator skin,” said Oliver as observers of the meeting, including some vocal Newark residents, applauded. “There are other sharp tools in the shed. We are not going to move forward unless your aptitude, not attitude, determines your altitude.”