Newark Board of Education swears in two new members, passes on charter school teacher

People stand on a stage with tables in the background.
The Newark Board of Education welcomed Kanileah Anderson and Helena Vinhas to the board on Jan. 25. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

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After months of uncertainty, during which the Newark Board of Education refused to swear in a charter school teacher chosen to fill an empty seat, the board welcomed two new members on Thursday night.

Helena Vinhas and Kanileah Anderson were sworn in at a ceremony at Newark Vocational High School during this month’s school board meeting. Family members joined Vinhas and Anderson on stage as they took their oaths of office, and later, seats as appointed board members during the meeting.

Community residents, family members, and council members Larry Crump and Michael Silva cheered in the audience as they celebrated the long-time residents, who will serve until April’s school board elections.

The inductions come after the board did not swear in Thomas Luna, a KIPP charter school teacher, to fill one of the empty seats after it first unanimously chose him to join the board in October. A two-time school board candidate, Luna could run for a seat on the nine-member board come April.

Earlier this month, Nancy Deering, the district’s spokesperson said the board had no plans to swear in Luna at school board meetings in January, Deering added.

Vinhas, the vice president of Mayor Ras Baraka’s Commission on the Status of Women, a jewelry store operator, and mother of two public school students, received support from Silva. In a Facebook post on Wednesday, he said Vinhas’ presence on the board would mark the first time in nearly a decade that his ward would have a voice on the school board.

Vinhas, who is also a volunteer with the Science Park Parent-Teacher-Student Organization, said Thursday that she accepted the challenge to become a school board member to give back to the community that raised her and her brother and provided her immigrant parents with an opportunity to build a business in Newark.

She also highlighted issues she wants to address such as overcrowded schools, outdated facilities, and the need for more specialized and foreign language teachers.

“I am committed to the charge and I promise to work to the best of my ability to help ensure the voiceless are given a voice. I say that because our eastward has needed representation for quite some time,” Vinhas said.

People stand on a stage with tables in the background.
Helena Vinhas was sworn onto the Newark Board of Education on Jan. 25. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

Anderson is known for her community work and advocacy work with Newark students. In the past, Anderson has rallied around education issues and also supported the rights of students with disabilities through advocacy for her daughter who attended Newark schools.

On Thursday, Anderson called herself “a social worker by career and by heart, I am a giver, a doer, and an achiever.” She comes from a family of advocates and community leaders and her induction to the board reminded her of her grandmother, who in 1987 was also appointed to the board to fill a vacancy.

“So you know, it’s in our bloodline,” Anderson said. “There’s power, there is success. There is a lot of greatness and I want to pour into everyone up here with me and I am hopeful that we do extremely well to move the district and the city forward.”

During Tuesday’s business meeting, board members interviewed seven candidates, including Anderson and Vinhas, vying to fill two empty seats — one vacated by former president Asia Norton in November, which was slated for Luna, and another by former member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas who won a seat on the Essex County Board of Commissioners in November.

People stand on a stage with tables in the background.
Kanileah Anderson was joined by her family on stage as she was sworn onto the Newark Board of Education on Jan. 25, 2024. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

At Tuesday’s meeting, President Hasani Council did not explain why the board decided not to seat Luna. Instead, he attributed the decision to a public records request that triggered a review of school board candidate applications last fall and their eligibility for the board. The request also triggered a review of School Ethics Commission opinions, principles of the School Ethics Act, and other school laws, said Council on Tuesday.

Last week, the New Jersey Children’s Foundation sent a six-page legal memo to the Newark school board that recommended the board seat Luna as a board member. The memo concluded there is no legal basis for the delay in swearing him in after he was chosen by the board to fill a vacancy.

As a result of the review, the board in December decided not to swear anyone into office, Council added.

Luna, who has twice run for the school board, said last week that he had not heard from the board or district about his role since the December school board meeting when a motion to swear him in failed but failed by a 4-2 vote, with two abstentions. He did not comment on the new appointments.

Past board members have held ties to the KIPP charter school network while serving on the board.

Former board member Rashied McCreary was also a teacher at KIPP Rise Academy when he was elected to the board in 2012. Norton, who was first elected in 2018, was a kindergarten teacher at KIPP Life Academy charter school when she ran for a seat on the school board. She left that position in June 2018, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In 2021, Murray-Thomas’ appointment to the board of directors of the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit that assists KIPP charter schools through training and fundraising, sparked ethics questions.

Both Vinhas and Anderson could decide to run in the April 16 school board election for their seat when the city’s 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote for the first time in history. They have not publicly said yet if they will run in April.

Residents interested in running for a seat on the school board must submit their applications to the Newark Board of Education by Feb. 26.

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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