Meet Newark’s new school board members, whose histories inform their hopes for the district

On Tuesday, three Newark residents accepted a daunting task: help steer the state’s largest school system, with its $1 billion budget and more than 36,000 students.

Those three individuals — Shayvonne Anderson, A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, and Tave Padilla — were each elected to three-year terms on the city’s school board. (Padilla, a current member, was reelected.) They ran on a ticket backed by the mayor, other elected officials, and charter school supporters.

The board’s nine members don’t run the district, which is the job of the superintendent and his team. But they do hire and evaluate the superintendent, adopt policies, oversee the budget, and approve the curriculum.

So who are these three?

Chalkbeat has created a primer on their backgrounds, campaign promises, and positions on charter schools, which educate about a third of Newark students and receive a large chunk of the district’s funding. The information was compiled from interviews, public forums, and surveys.

Shayvonne Anderson

During a candidate forum this month, Anderson had a panic attack and left the stage. When she returned a short while later, she attributed the incident to trauma she’s experienced.

“That is why trauma-informed care is very important to me — that we deal with the trauma that students have,” she told the audience at the Newark Trust for Education forum. “Because I have grown up that way and still, to this age, am dealing with the effects of that.”

Anderson’s traumas included surviving childhood sexual abuse, running away from home, and an abusive marriage, she told Chalkbeat.

Rather than let those experiences cripple her or feed a cycle of abuse, Anderson vowed that none of her 10 children — seven biological plus three others she has raised — would endure what she had. Instead, she became a fierce advocate for her children, moving them between traditional and charter schools in Newark. Today, one of her children is in cosmetology school, another is in the military, and a third is a college honors student.

Growing up, “I don’t feel like anybody fought for me; I don’t feel like my voice was heard,” Anderson said. “So I always pride myself on being their biggest advocate, their biggest supporter.”

She also extended her advocacy work beyond her own family. She founded a group for fellow abuse survivors, called Healing Her, mentored children through the Big Sister program, and became a parent organizer for KIPP New Jersey, the charter school network where she enrolled some of her children.

Anderson says she learned how to unleash her power as an advocate after a Newark public school designated one of her sons, who had academic and behavior challenges, as “emotionally disturbed.” She promptly moved him to a new school, met with the school’s social workers, and saw that his diagnosis was changed to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, she said.

“I would not allow my son to have a title that he would carry through his life and be treated unfairly because of it,” Anderson wrote in a candidate survey. “That’s the day I transformed from parent to parent advocate.”

Campaign promises

  • Provide more teacher training
  • Offer trauma-informed care to students and training for staff
  • Conduct a parent listening tour
  • Key quote: “Parents are the greatest voice that your children have,” she said. “Decisions should not be made without you at the table.”

Charter schools

  • Called for equity across all school types
  • Collaboration between traditional and charter schools
  • Expansion of high-demand charter schools
  • Key quote: “I do support charters and believe if parents in Newark demand more school options then, yes, charters should expand.”
(Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

A’Dorian Murray-Thomas

Just four years ago, Murray-Thomas was a college student with a golden opportunity: a $10,000 grant to tackle a social issue. She decided to create a support group for young women who, like herself, had been affected by violence.

Today, the group she founded, called SHE Wins Inc., teaches girls from over 20 Newark schools about leadership, community service, and social justice. And Murray-Thomas, who is CEO of the Newark-based nonprofit, has earned honors from Glamour Magazine, The Root, and the White House, among others.

Her work supporting students impacted by violence has brought her full circle from when she was 7 years old and her father, a Guyanese immigrant, was gunned down just blocks from their home.

“I’ve experienced tragedy in this city,” said Murray-Thomas, who is 23, in an interview with Chalkbeat last month.

“But I’ve also experienced so much triumph and joy,” she added. “My job is to really pay that forward and make sure other young people have the opportunity to do the same.”

Growing up in Newark, Murray-Thomas attended an Afrocentric private school called The Chad School, a KIPP charter school, and a boarding school in Massachusetts through the support of the Wight Foundation. She graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 2016.

After college, she worked at the Newark Opportunity Youth Network, supporting students who dropped out or struggled in high school. Her work brought her in contact with Mayor Ras Baraka, who invited her to join the slate of school board candidates that he endorsed.

On Tuesday, she became the youngest woman ever elected to serve on the city school board, she said.

“Our city needs its young people to be a part of the change,” she said last month, adding, “After the election — that’s when the real work starts.”

Campaign promises

  • Reduce student suspensions
  • Expand extracurricular offerings and career training
  • Create a youth advisory board
  • Key quote: “Young people have the answers. Adults aren’t asking the questions.”

Charter schools

  • Schools of all types should share best practices
  • Overhaul the enrollment system used by the city’s charter and district schools
  • Ensure equity among traditional schools before adding more charter schools
  • Key quote: “We cannot expand school choice at the expense of traditional public school students.”
(Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Tave Padilla

Padilla’s life and work are deeply rooted in Newark.

His parents moved to the city from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. Padilla attended Catholic school in Newark and later ran a small business there for many years. He raised two children in the city, who graduated from Rutgers University.

“I’ve lived in Newark 56 years — my whole life,” he said at a candidate forum in March hosted by the Newark NAACP. “I’ve lived in the South Ward, West Ward, Central Ward, now the North Ward.”

Padilla has been involved in politics, serving as an aide and chief of staff for several state lawmakers. And he has worked with young people for many years as a coach and co-director of youth development and recreation at the North Ward Center.

He was first elected to the school board in 2016 as part of the Unity slate (now called Moving Newark Schools Forward), which North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. established along with Baraka and charter school supporters to ease tensions between the different camps.

After the state put the city’s school board back in charge of the school system last year, Padilla made clear that the board intended to use its new powers — which it promptly did by blocking several district leadership changes that Superintendent Roger León tried to enact.

“While Mr. León is the superintendent — and we fully respect that,” Padilla said last June, “the ultimate authority is the board.”

Campaign promises

  • Respond to requests by parents and students
  • Hold the superintendent accountable
  • Key quote: “Being under local control, we are the authority over the superintendent.”

Charter schools

  • Supports district and charter options for families
  • Key quote: “They’re here to stay,” he said about charter schools. “But we should also take a good look now to see where they are at to see if there should be an expansion or not.”