Newark mayor defends Superintendent León after anonymous flyers attack his charter school stance

Mayor Ras Baraka is defending the Newark schools chief after anonymous flyers and posters appeared across the city attacking the superintendent’s call to close four charter schools.

In an online message posted Monday evening, Baraka called the posters criticizing Superintendent Roger León “tasteless and sophomoric” and “based on ignorance.” He also defended León’s call for the state to shutter the four charter schools, echoing León’s argument that the charters divert funding from traditional schools and fail to adequately serve students with special needs.

Baraka’s message and the mysterious posters warning “Your school could be next!” are the latest flareup in an escalating dispute over the four charter schools: M.E.T.S., People’s Prep, Roseville Community, and University Heights. The schools are up for renewal, a routine process in which charter schools must apply for state approval to continue operating.

León submitted letters to the state education commissioner last month urging him to reject the schools’ applications, adding that the state should also restrict the formation of new charter schools. The letters drew angry responses from charter school advocates, who called León’s statements “irresponsible” and “inaccurate,” and from a lawyer for People’s Prep, who accused León of trying to “uproot the educational lives of hundreds” of students in order to seize the school’s building space.

One of the posters that has appeared across the city attacking Superintendent León’s recommendation that the state close four Newark charter schools.

Now the posters and flyers have sprung up across the city, blasting the superintendent from telephone poles and other public spaces. They refer to León as “the king” and feature a photograph of him sitting on a mock throne at his birthday celebration last year. The poster lists the names of the four charter schools as well as a traditional public school, Branch Brook Elementary, that the district plans to shut down after this school year.

“Don’t let the king close more Newark schools!” the poster reads. “Your school could be next!”

It is unclear who produced the signs. The flyers are signed “concerned parents of the NEWARK Public Schools District,” but feature no other identifying information. 

In his message that was published on the City of Newark website, Baraka implied that pro-charter school groups were behind the signs. He accused the charter schools defenders of hypocrisy, saying they did not protest when a prior superintendent shuttered traditional schools.

“It is disturbing to me that when previous state-appointed superintendents closed Newark Public Schools, there was no such hue-and-cry,” wrote Baraka, a former principal in a traditional Newark school. “Cami Anderson closed 20 Newark Schools with hardly a whisper of protest from some of these groups.”

Baraka has previously called for a moratorium on the spread of charter schools, which serve more than a third of Newark public school students, saying that their unchecked expansion would “suck the life out of traditional schools.” Because charter school funding flows through district budgets in New Jersey, about a quarter of the Newark Public Schools budget is reserved for charters.

In his post Monday, Baraka noted that León does not have any authority to close charter schools, which is solely a state decision. Still, he said León has “the right and obligation” to assess the performance of all Newark schools and make recommendations to the state. 

In fact, state regulations give local elected school boards, not superintendents, the option to weigh in on charter schools’ renewal applications. Charter advocates have pointed out that the Newark school board has not voted to approve León’s recommendation that the state close the four schools.

León’s recommendation appears to have rattled some residents of Newark, where a majority of voters say they support the existence of charter schools. Tave Padilla said he and other members of the Newark school board have received numerous calls from community members asking whether the district plans to shut down charter schools. 

“People were in an uproar,” Padilla said last week, adding that León has assured the board that he is only targeting those four charter schools and not any others.

The board meets Tuesday evening; its public agenda does not list a vote on León’s recommendation. The state education department has said it plans to decide on the fate of the four schools by early February.