Election Results

Candidates backed by powerful coalition sweep Newark’s historic school board election

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Asia Norton, a charter-school teacher, was elected to fill one of three open seats on the school board.

A charter school teacher, a former labor organizer, and a PTA president swept Newark’s school board election Tuesday, according to preliminary results, earning spots on the first board to wield full control over the city’s schools in over two decades.

The new members — Asia Norton, Yambeli Gomez, and Dawn Haynes — will help select a new superintendent for the 36,000-student district and oversee its nearly $1 billion budget. Those powers were restored to the board in February, when the state officially ended its 22-year-long takeover of the district.

The winning candidates were part of a slate backed by a powerful alliance among Mayor Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., and pro-charter school groups. By uniting behind a single slate of candidates in each of the past three elections, those once-rival factions have managed to reshape the board: With this election, all nine board members will have been endorsed by the coalition.

The coalition-backed candidates earned far more votes than their 10 opponents. But, as in past years, few voters went to the polls. With 90 percent of districts reporting by Tuesday night, just over 6,700 ballots had been cast — less than 5 percent of the city’s registered voters. Low voter turnout is common in districts like Newark, where board elections are held separately from other elections.

Some observers had hoped the return to local control would drive more people to the polls. But many Newarkers don’t yet know about the shift, said Kaleena Berryman, acting director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University-Newark.

The group, which trains Newark residents on how to get involved in education policy, hosted a workshop on local control last weekend. Berryman said it will take more time to teach the public why the school board is important and how to influence its decision-making.

“The board has the remote control, but the community has to have the batteries,” she said. “And our batteries are our voice, our advocacy, and our vote.”

PHOTO: movingnewarkschoolsforward.com
A screenshot of the “Moving Newark Schools Forward” slate’s website with the three winning candidates: Yambeli Gomez, Dawn Haynes, and Asia Norton.

The new board members will get to work immediately, with training sessions scheduled for later this week. Once they are sworn in, their first order of business will be to help choose a new superintendent. (One of the applicants for that position is Robert Gregory, a former principal who is serving as interim superintendent.)

The board has until May 31 to make its pick, according to a transition plan created by the state to guide the district back to local control. The plan also sets out other requirements — including that the city hold a vote in November to decide whether to stick with an elected school board or start letting the mayor appoint its members. (Baraka has said he thinks the board should be elected.)

Meanwhile, the board also intends to reevaluate some policies enacted during the state takeover — starting with the school-enrollment system that sparked an uproar when it first went into effect in 2014. The system replaced the tradition of students attending their nearest school with a citywide enrollment lottery, and created a single application for most district and charter schools. Board members say the district has improved the system over time, but they still hear complaints from some parents.

“The enrollment process has always been a concern of residents and parents,” said board member Kim Gaddy. Reviewing it and considering changes, she said, “is definitely going to be a priority and big responsibility of the board.”

The winners in Tuesday’s election each had ties to the groups that endorsed them.

Norton is a Newark parent and kindergarten teacher at KIPP Life Academy charter school. Gomez is a former labor organizer who is now a city councilman’s aide and a district captain for the North Ward Democrats. Haynes is a City Hall staffer and president of the Harriet Tubman school’s parent-teacher association.

The winners reported a combined $21,208 in campaign contributions, with Gomez raising the most thanks to large donations from union-affiliated groups, according to campaign filings made prior to election day. The other board candidates did not report any contributions prior to the election.

The winning candidates, whose slate was called “Moving Newark Schools Forward,” were able to campaign alongside Baraka and Ramos, who are both running for reelection next month. With support from the politicians’ political machines, they called voters, flooded the city with flyers, and even secured a mobile billboard with their names and faces.

The machines are famous for getting their loyalists to the polls. On Tuesday, a man wearing a “Team Baraka” hat dropped off a woman at Rafael Hernandez School so she could vote. The man declined to give his name, but said he and the woman are both city employees.

Meanwhile, several parents and teachers said they had not heard about the election as they left the North Ward school on Tuesday. By 5 p.m., just under 60 ballots had been cast at the site in the 10 hours since it opened, according to Juanita Zerbian, a poll worker.

“It’s sad,” she said, adding that she wished more parents took an interest in the board. “They’re the first ones to complain about the school system, but they don’t come out to vote.”

The scene was similar at Dr. E. Alma Flagg School in the Central Ward, where poll workers chatted amongst themselves Tuesday evening in the school’s empty gymnasium while one of their colleagues — her legs wrapped in a blanket — sat beside a voting booth that went unused for long stretches.

Yambeli Gomez, who stopped by the school with a few campaign workers, said it was “discouraging” to see the low turnout. But she vowed, once elected, to continue meeting with parents and community members and urging them to get involved with the schools.

“I’m going to keep knocking on doors,” she said.

behind the scenes

‘It may not bode well.’ State lawmaker intervened in Newark’s superintendent search, its first under local control

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz at a groundbreaking in January with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (center).

Newark’s recent search for a new superintendent was designed to be free from political interference. Then a state lawmaker got involved.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Newark native and one of the city’s North Ward powerbrokers, pressured state officials to remove a state-appointed member of the superintendent search committee, according to a person with direct knowledge of the request. The member was removed and replaced with someone with North Ward connections.

Later, after the search committee chose three finalists, as required by state guidelines, Ruiz called the state education commissioner to demand that a fourth superintendent candidate be added to the list, according to a person told about the call. The chair of the Newark school board, who also has North Ward political ties, made the same request in an email. In response, the commissioner agreed to amend the state guidelines, intended to safeguard against meddling, to allow a fourth candidate.

A few weeks later, the board voted for the new superintendent: Roger León, a longtime Newark educator and administrator backed by Ruiz.

“Congratulations to Roger Leon on his appointment as the Superintendent for Newark Public Schools,” Ruiz wrote on Facebook. “His life’s work has been dedicated to our children.”

The board’s vote last month was an historic occasion — the first time it chose the city’s schools chief since the 1990s, when the state seized control of the district due to corruption and poor performance. Because of the significance of the superintendent selection, both practically and symbolically, state officials included step-by-step instructions for the search in the plan they created to guide the district’s transition back to local control of the schools.

But Ruiz’s backchannel involvement in the process shows how easily those guardrails were cleared as people who weren’t technically part of the search sought to influence its outcome.

“While politics is always a part of urban education, you set up rules to minimize the effect — particularly of elected officials,” said Alan Sadovnik, a professor of education and sociology at Rutgers University-Newark.

He said he saw no evidence the political involvement in this case was based on “corrupt intent.” Still, he added, “It may not bode well if at the very outset, when the whole world is watching, when you’re moving back to local control, the rules are not followed.”

State education department spokesman Michael Yaple did not answer questions about Ruiz’s involvement in the selection process. But he disputed that the education commissioner replaced a committee member, saying that only one person was ever “formally appointed” — appearing to contradict a statement by the state-appointed superintendent in December.

Through a spokeswoman, Ruiz declined to answer any questions about her role in the search.

“The senator is not going to comment on the superintendent search,” the spokeswoman, Jen Sweet, said. “The search is over, and she would like to focus on the future of Newark schools.”

In December, the state education department released a two-year plan that details the steps the district must take to regain full authority over its schools. One requirement was that the board hire a private firm to conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be screened by a seven-member search committee. The committee was to include three board members, three civic leaders, and one state appointee.

At the board’s public meeting on December 19, then-Superintendent Christopher Cerf said he had urged the state education commissioner to appoint a Newark educator to the committee. Then he announced that the state had heeded his advice: Carolyn Granato, a former Newark principal who currently heads up the district’s special-education office, was the state’s pick.

“She’s the seventh person on the selection committee,” Cerf said.

Yaple, the education department spokesman, said that Granato was never “formally appointed.” He did not immediately respond to an email asking him to explain Cerf’s public statement.

Whether or not Granato was “formally” the state’s pick, she did not last long. Soon after Cerf’s announcement, Ruiz called the state education commissioner at the time, Kimberley Harrington, and insisted that Granato be replaced, according to the person with direct knowledge of the request, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversation.

“She aggressively demanded that the former commissioner change [Granato] out,” the person said.

Harrington, who did not respond to requests for comment, declined to choose a new committee member, the person said. But Harrington herself was on the way out.

On Jan. 29, Lamont Repollet became acting commissioner. Chosen by newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy, Repollet was confirmed on Thursday by the state senate — where Ruiz, as the education committee chair, holds considerable sway.

Soon after taking over, Repollet replaced Granato with Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, a real estate attorney who was on the Newark school board in the early 2000s and is currently an Essex County Schools of Technology board member.

Carrillo-Perez is also connected to North Ward politics. She contributed to North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr.’s campaign in 2011, according to election records, and was a co-chair of an event in April for Ramos’ reelection campaign, according to a post on the councilman’s Facebook page. (Ruiz was listed as a chair of that campaign event.)

Carrillo-Perez did not respond to emailed questions.

In late April, the search committee — with Carrillo-Perez as its state-appointed member — selected three finalists to present to the school board. However, some of the members felt that a strong candidate had been left off the shortlist.

At that point, Ruiz intervened. She contacted Repollet directly to ask that he amend the transition plan to allow for four candidates, according to the person who was told about the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Around the same time, search committee member and school board chair Josephine Garcia also asked Repollet to allow a fourth candidate — despite the objections of some of her fellow committee members who wanted to stick with the three candidates whom the group had already agreed to, in accordance with state guidelines, as Chalkbeat has previously reported.

Garcia also has deep North Ward ties. Councilman Ramos backed her in last year’s school-board election, and she was listed as a co-chair of the same April campaign event for Ramos that Carrillo-Perez and Ruiz participated in.

Repollet granted their request. On April 27, he sent Garcia a letter saying he would allow four candidates “in order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding” the right person.

Search committee members have refused to say who among the candidates was the fourth added to the shortlist. But on May 22, after León narrowly won a closed-door poll, all nine board members agreed to publicly vote for León.

The next day, Garcia posted the news of León’s selection on Facebook, adding, “Long overdue.”

Update: This story was updated to reflect that the state senate confirmed Lamont Repollet as education commissioner on Thursday.

Student Voice

Boasting impressive resumes, five Newark students compete for a school board seat

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Top row: Amanda Amponsah, Nailah Cornish, Andre Ferreira. Bottom row: Shalom Jimoh, Emmanuel Ogbonnaya.

Earlier this year, Newark residents elected three new members to the city’s re-empowered school board. Now, public school students can choose one of their own to join the board, which in February became the district’s governing body for the first time in more than two decades.

Students have until midnight on Tuesday, June 5, to vote online for a rising 12th-grader to represent their interests on the school board. The winning student representative will provide the board with student perspectives on district policy, but will not be permitted to vote.

Eligible candidates are required to have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, a satisfactory disciplinary record, and to submit peer and faculty recommendations. Last week, the five candidates participated in a debate, which can be heard here.

The candidates are:

  • Amanda Amponsah, of University High School, who is class president, captain of the softball team, a member of the marching band, and an aspiring pediatric oncologist.
  • Nailah Cornish, of Barringer Academy of Arts and Humanities, who plays basketball and volleyball, runs her own modeling program, and plans to study law and business in college.
  • Andre Ferreira, of Science Park High School, who is a soccer player, debater, and vice president of the student leadership organization. He plans to major in political science and aspires to work for the United Nations.
  • Shalom Jimoh, of Weequahic High School, who immigrated from Nigeria, and is now a member of the student government council, the National Honor Society, and the track and volleyball teams. She plans to study medicine and theater arts in college.
  • Emmanuel Ogbonnaya, of Weequahic High School, who serves as school photographer, soccer team captain, and is a member of the National Honor Society. Emmanuel wants to study engineering, and then start a company that combines photography, architecture, and engineering.

The winner will join the board at an historic moment. Control of the district reverted to the city in February, when state officials determined the district had met its requirements for home rule. The district had been run by the state for 22 years prior.

Last year, more than 1,200 students  — or about 13 percent of Newark public high school students — voted for a student representative to the school board, which then functioned in an advisory capacity only. This year, a Newark student group tried to ramp up turnout with text messages and a video posted on Facebook encouraging voting.

“The student representative will work closely with administrators and board members to make sure that all student voices are heard,” according to a video produced in advance of the vote by the Youth Media Symposium at the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark civic-engagement group. “Now that we have local control, this is more crucial than ever.”

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1,381 votes had been cast. District officials said the winner will be announced Friday, and will be introduced publicly at the board’s June 12 meeting. The representative will then be required to attend at least four board meetings and various district events during the 2018–2019 academic year.