In Newark school board race, independent candidates face off against team with political backing

Two teams of candidates will square off in Newark’s school board election next month: one is backed by powerful officials, the other bills itself as people-powered.

The first trio of candidates was vetted and endorsed by Mayor Ras Baraka and other elected officials, along with charter school advocates. The alliance raised eyebrows when it emerged three years ago, not least because Baraka has criticized the charter sector’s rapid growth. But candidates on this unlikely coalition’s ticket have swept the past three elections and today fill all nine board seats.

The second team includes a board member, Leah Owens, who has raised concerns about the spread of the city’s charter schools, which educate more than a third of students. She was previously backed by the mayor but is now running for reelection against Baraka’s chosen candidates. Her new team’s name: Children Over Politics.

“We’re not powered by the machine,” said Denise Cole, a local education advocate who is running alongside Owens. “We’re powered by the community.”

A total of 11 contenders are jostling for three open board seats in the April 16 election. It comes at a critical moment for the district: After a decades-long state takeover, the board regained provisional control of the city’s more than 60 schools and nearly $1 billion budget last year. Now, the board must steer the district back to full local control while overseeing a new superintendent who has promised major policy changes in the coming years.

The mayor and other elected officials have no direct authority over the schools but have long exerted their influence by endorsing board candidates. In the past, Baraka’s camp and North Ward officials led by City Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. backed opposing three-person slates, turning board elections into proxy battles between their political operations. But, in 2016, the two sides called a truce and joined forces with the charter sector, which was planning to promote its own candidates. The once-rival factions began endorsing a single slate of candidates each year.

Critics contend the coalition, with its fearsome fundraising and get-out-the-vote prowess, effectively boxes out independent candidates, allowing politicians to handpick board members. Defenders of the alliance say it has helped cut down on unproductive clashes between power brokers representing different segments of the city and between supporters of traditional and charter schools, instead shifting the focus to policies that benefit all students.

“Unlike the divisive politics that is all too frequent in our current political climate,” Councilman Ramos said in a statement, “this coalition recognizes that while we may not on agree on every issue, when it comes to our students, we are all committed to providing them a high quality public education.”

Ramos’ chief of staff, Samuel Gonzalez, is the campaign manager for the coalition’s team, known as Moving Newark Schools Forward. (The candidates also have individual campaign managers.) Tave Padilla, a current board member running for reelection, is the slate candidate representing the North Ward, where he works at an adult daycare facility and previously helped run a recreation center.

The mayor’s pick is A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, a 23-year-old Newark native who attended a now-shuttered Afrocentric private school, The Chad School, and a KIPP New Jersey charter school. After college, she founded a nonprofit called SHE Wins Inc., which supports young women who have been affected by violence, and worked at an organization that helps Newark students who have struggled in high school. She said the mayor’s office approached her about joining the board, which she considered both an extension of her nonprofit work and her civic duty.

“Sometimes you just have to answer the call,” she said.

The slate’s third candidate is Shayvonne Anderson, a mother of 10 who founded a support group for women who have survived abuse. Anderson, who attended traditional public schools in Newark, sent most of her children to charter schools, where, she wrote in 2015, they “are learning so much more than I ever did.”

In an interview, she qualified her praise for charters, noting that some of her children also attended traditional schools. Her focus is less on promoting one type of school, she said, than on making sure families have good options.

“I’m not just coming as all charter, charter, charter,” she said. “I am a parent choice advocate.”

While the charter school sector still has representation in the coalition, it’s unclear what role it is currently playing.

Whereas charter advocates vetted potential board candidates last year, Anderson said she went directly to the mayor and council members to request a spot on this year’s coalition slate. At the same time, a group created to turn Newark charter school parents into a potent voting bloc has gone defunct — though a new group with charter school ties is trying to register more Newark residents to vote.

Jermaine James, a state legislative aide who is managing Anderson’s campaign, noted that while the mayor and North Ward officials have honed their campaign strategies over many years, the charter sector is newer to Newark politics.

“On the streets, they’re not on the same par,” he said. “I don’t see them out organizing people.”

Owens, the board member running for reelection on the Children Over Politics team, was Baraka’s pick for the coalition slate in 2016. A former Newark high school teacher and community organizer, Owens is now pursuing a doctorate in urban education policy at Rutgers University-Newark. On the board, where she made an unsuccessful bid to become chairperson last year, she has called for greater transparency from the superintendent.

This year, Owens approached Cole about running together, Cole said. (Owens did not respond to interview requests.) Cole, a U.S. Army Reserve veteran, has been a student, parent, and substitute teacher in Newark’s public schools. The third member of their team is Saafir Jenkins, who works in human resources and helps lead an advocacy group for the parents of Newark students who have disabilities.

The other candidates in the race are: Denise Crawford, Maggie Freeman, Priscilla Garces, Yolanda Johnson, and Arlene Ramsey.

Baraka and the North Ward will have their well-oiled election apparatuses churning on the slate’s behalf, armed with lists of registered voters, phone banks, fundraisers, and workers knocking on doors. Their candidates also had the good fortune of landing the top three slots on the ballot, which were assigned Wednesday through a lottery — a position, research shows, that can help garner votes.

Still, the slate candidates said they were not taking any chances. They have already started making their pitches to potential voters at churches and supermarkets and handing out flyers around schools.

Despite their longer odds, the other candidates are also out ringing doorbells and shaking hands. All the hopefuls have also been invited to a series of forums, beginning with one hosted by the Newark NAACP next Thursday.

As Cole sees it, the way to take on a political machine is to deliver your message directly to voters.

“We believe in the people — we are part of the people,” she said. “And I believe we can win that way.”