Newark voters approve tax hike, elect school board members backed by politicians and charter advocates

Newark voters chose a mother of 10, a 23-year-old youth advocate, and a current board member to fill three open seats on the city’s school board, according to preliminary results from Tuesday’s election.

For the fourth straight year, the winning candidates were backed by a coalition of powerful politicians, including Mayor Ras Baraka, and deep-pocketed charter school advocates — a testament to the political and financial forces helping steer the state’s largest school system from behind the scenes.

Candidates endorsed by Baraka and the coalition now fill all nine of the board’s seats. In November, Newark voters opted to retain an elected school board rather than one appointed by the mayor.

Voters on Tuesday also overwhelmingly approved a 2 percent property tax increase to help fund the schools, offering a tacit endorsement of the district’s new local leadership. It was the first time in over two decades that Newark residents got to weigh in on the district’s $1 billion budget, which the state controlled until last year.

The victorious candidates were Shayvonne Anderson, an advocate for domestic abuse survivors whose 10 children have attended traditional and charter schools in Newark; A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, a recent college graduate who founded a support organization for young women in Newark; and Tave Padilla, who has worked in politics and the nonprofit sector and was up for re-election to the board this year.

As board members, the trio will help make policies for the 36,000-student district and oversee its superintendent, Roger León, who began in July and is expected to roll out a detailed district plan in coming months. They will also have to help manage the district’s finances amid the growth of the city’s charter sector, which receives a quarter of the district’s funds.

The slate beat out eight other contenders, including a team called Children Over Politics that included outgoing board member Leah Owens. Owens has been one of the board’s most vocal skeptics of charter schools, the publicly funded but privately managed schools that educate about a third of Newark students.

The winning team, known as Moving Newark Schools Forward, enjoyed the backing of the mayor, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., and state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, along with several current board members. The elected officials trumpeted the candidates at rallies and $100-per-ticket fundraisers, while their political machines helped staff phone banks and door-to-door canvassing and arranged for the candidates to speak at churches across the city.

“We’ve done a great job over the past three years, moving into the fourth year, of electing some outstanding candidates to represent us on the Newark Board of Education,” Ramos said at a North Ward fundraiser for the slate, according to a video recording of the event. He predicted that by 8:30 p.m. on election night, “we will announce that our team will be victorious.”

The team also benefited from advertising bought by a special-interest group with deep charter school connections, which spent heavily to support the candidates but was prohibited by election law from coordinating with them. The group, called Great Schools for All PAC, posted a message on Facebook Monday saying that its campaign workers had made 19,000 calls and home visits on behalf of the Moving Newark Schools Forward team.

The candidates themselves have longstanding ties to the city’s charter schools. Anderson was a parent organizer at the KIPP New Jersey charter school network, and Murray-Thomas attended a KIPP school. But both women also have strong connections to the city’s traditional schools, which Anderson and several of her children attended, and where many of the young people that Murray-Thomas has supported go to school.

Like many Newark residents and elected officials, all three candidates said they want all the city’s schools to be well-resourced and high-quality — and that parents should have the right to choose the best schools for their children, whether they be traditional or charter.

“I’m not a pro-charter parent,” Anderson told Chalkbeat last month. “I’m a pro-choice parent.”

This framing represents a victory of sorts for Newark’s charter sector, which drew criticism in the years after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, former Mayor Cory Booker, and former Gov. Chris Christie joined forces to overhaul the district and expand the number of charter schools. The Moving Newark Schools Forward slate, which was established in 2016, was intended partly to end political clashes over charter schools and shift the focus to policies that would benefit all schools, such as increased state funding.

As is typical for school board elections in many cities, especially when they occur separately from other elections, voter turnout was low. On Tuesday, just over 7,000 people cast ballots, or less than 5 percent of registered voters, according to the unofficial results.

Outside Quitman Street School in the Central Ward, workers for the Moving Newark Schools Forward campaign passed out flyers to parents as they picked up their children Tuesday afternoon. Briefly parked outside the school was a van mounted with giant video screens that played an ad for Anderson.

Yet several parents said they had not heard about the race and weren’t sure whether they would vote. At the school’s polling site, just 27 ballots had been cast by about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, poll workers said.

The board election is “like our school system,” said Toshia Rogers, one of the campaign workers outside Quitman. “It really doesn’t get that much acknowledgement.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect number of ballots cast in Tuesday’s election.