war of words

‘It’s enough now’: Mayor Baraka calls on state to halt Newark’s charter-school expansion

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Mayor Ras Baraka wants to hit the brakes on Newark’s charter-school sector, saying Thursday that its rapid growth could “suck the life out of traditional schools.”

The proliferation of the privately operated but publicly funded schools has contributed to gaping holes in the district’s budget, forcing school closures and staff reductions. Today, about 16,000 Newark students — or a third of the total — attend charter schools.

“It’s enough now,” Baraka said during an interview at City Hall, where he rekindled a charged debate about the proper size of the city’s charter sector. Arguing that charters should not “expand arbitrarily, aggressively, without any consideration for the traditional public schools,” he called on state officials to hit pause.

“Whatever they have approved — that’s it,” said Baraka, a Democrat who is running for re-election in May. “They shouldn’t go anymore until this is thought out.”

The number of Newark students in charter schools quadrupled over the past decade under former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is an avid charter proponent. Thanks to future expansions that Christie officials approved before leaving office, Newark’s charter sector could serve more than 40 percent of city students within five years. (Only seven districts across the country had 40 percent or more of their students in charter schools last year.)

But, in recent months, the climate for charters has changed dramatically.

Christie has been replaced by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who proposed a “time out” for charter expansions during his campaign. Christie’s handpicked superintendent for Newark has left and a new one will be chosen by the city’s elected school board — which includes some outspoken charter skeptics. And now Baraka is calling on the state — which must sign off on any new charters — to halt their expansion.

He has made similar appeals before, which sparked outrage among charter supporters.

In 2015, he called KIPP New Jersey — one of Newark’s largest and top-performing charter operators — “highly irresponsible” for planning to open several new schools and enroll thousands of additional students. Shortly after, he asked then-State Education Commissioner David Hespe to deny KIPP’s expansion request, along with those of several other charter operators. (Hespe approved the plans.)

Newark Public Schools loses 90 percent of the funding attached to any student who opts into a charter school. This year, the district will transfer about a quarter of its budget — roughly $237 million — to charter schools. At the same time, new students have been enrolling in district schools even as state funding barely budged for several years.

That combination of lost revenue to charters, additional students, and flat funding has left the school system with $70 million budget shortfalls in recent years, forcing the district to shrink its workforce and reduce student services.

If state funding remains flat and charters “just grow, grow, grow,” Baraka said Thursday, “it will suck the life out of traditional schools — and we can’t have that.” (Murphy has proposed increasing state aid to Newark schools by 5 percent this year, but state budget negotiations are still ongoing.)

Baraka may be alarmed about the spread of charters — but he also recognizes that they are deeply popular with many of his constituents. Last year, about half of families applying to kindergarten listed charter schools as their top choice.

He has often said that he’s responsible for all Newark children — regardless of what type of school they attend — and just last month he gathered dozens of principals from district, charter, and private schools to talk about shared priorities. On Thursday, he said charters are a fact of life in Newark — whether he likes it or not.

“We can’t, like, burn the schools down — people’s kids are in there,” he said. “So we have to make sure they’re successful. And we’re all in this city, so we have to play in the sandbox together.”

He has also been willing to form political alliances with the charter sector. For the third year in a row, he has joined the city’s charter leaders and a North Ward councilman in backing a single slate of candidates in the school-board elections.

“The mayor’s not stupid,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “Charter-school people vote.”

On Wednesday, the union endorsed Baraka in his re-election bid. The NTU, along with New Jersey’s main teachers union, have called for a statewide moratorium on new charter schools and expansions of existing ones.

State education department spokesman Michael Yaple would not say whether the agency is considering a freeze on charter approvals. But he said the department is planning a “comprehensive review” of the state’s charter law, and pointed to recent comments by Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, who said he would not “put aside” applications for new charters.

KIPP New Jersey, which plans to grow its enrollment from about 4,100 students in Newark to 7,800 over the next few years, did not respond to a request to comment on Baraka’s statements. But in an interview earlier in the week, CEO Ryan Hill said that Baraka had been mostly “even-handed” toward charter schools.

“I think he knows our schools are doing good things for kids,” Hill said, “and those kids are his constituents and he has to be mayor of the whole city.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”