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.”
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.