One day in 1995, state education officials arrived in Newark to begin the process of taking over the city school system, which had been deemed failing and mismanaged. Anzella King Nelms, a Newark schools official at the time, was there.
“I was in the superintendent’s conference room on the day that the state walked in to take over Newark,” Nelms said during a recent talk. “It was a day that our hearts dropped.”
More than two decades later, the state has finally ended its takeover. And it has appointed Nelms, a former Newark deputy superintendent, as its representative to help the district complete its return to local control.
“Today, I stand here representing the state,” Nelms told the audience. “How ‘bout that.”
On Feb. 1, Newark’s elected school board was restored to its full status as a board of education, following 22 years in a diminished advisory role. Many in Newark celebrated that day as a triumphant return to a locally run school system. But, as Nelms well knows, that was just the start of the return — and there is still potentially rocky terrain ahead.
In order to fully transition back to local control, the district and school board must abide by a two-year plan that sets milestones for them to meet and possible sanctions if they don’t. To help them stay on track, the plan calls for a “highly skilled professional” to act as a state monitor, compliance officer, and consultant rolled into one.
“This was essentially seen as a two-year insurance policy,” said Alan Sadovnik, an education and sociology professor at Rutgers University-Newark, referring to the transition plan and state monitor. “You simply could not give back total control until the district demonstrated that they were in fact able to operate themselves.”
The state chose Nelms as its highly skilled professional in Newark. But despite her crucial role, she’s mostly worked behind the scenes. (A state education department spokesman declined to make her available for an interview, saying people in her role don’t do interviews because “speaking to the press isn’t their core area of expertise.”)
However, Nelms gave a presentation on Saturday to some 40 parents, educators, and community activists at an event sponsored by the Abbott Leadership Institute, which offers trainings on school policy to the public. Chalkbeat attended the talk, during which Nelms gave an inside look at her efforts to help Newark get and keep control of its schools.
“Putting words on a paper and saying that you’re moving back to local control is one thing. Making it happen is another,” she said during the talk at Rutgers University-Newark. “And it is so much work.”
Each step of Newark’s release from state control is spelled out in its 73-page transition plan, which the state education department created last year with input from Newark district and city officials and after several public meetings. It details the many duties of the highly skilled professional, or HSP.
That person must help the district set its budget and establish strong relationships with the charter school and higher-education sectors, according to the plan. The HSP must also make sure the school board attends required trainings and does not overstep its authority, while mediating any conflicts that arise between the board and the superintendent, whom the board will appoint later this month from a list of candidates that includes the current interim superintendent, Robert Gregory. And the HSP must work with a new accountability office that will monitor the district’s progress, while flagging any possible ethics violations.
As a state monitor embedded in the district, the HSP could be seen as an occupying force. The state may have hoped to avoid that perception by appointing Nelms, who has roughly 40 years of experience as a Newark teacher, principal, and district official. It was a savvy choice, said Mary Bennett, another longtime Newark educator who was part of a committee that helped plan the return to local control.
“I don’t think they could have gotten someone with more understanding of the Newark community, the Newark context, and the Newark board of education than Ms. Nelms,” she said.
Since stepping into the role in February, Nelms has become intimately familiar with the transition plan, which she called a “precious document.”
At Saturday’s presentation, she held up a thick binder into which she’d sorted the plan into color-coded sections. She explained that at her cubicle at Newark Public Schools headquarters she has posted a blown-up copy of the state’s “accountability scorecard” — a measure of how faithfully Newark has carried out the plan, which stipulates, among other things, how the board should go about hiring a new superintendent and what trainings its members must undergo. (One requirement is a “review of past ethical lapses in the District.”)
If the district does not adhere to the plan, which also covers curriculum and budgeting, then it could face a series of escalating consequences. Those include extending the transition period, stepping up state oversight, or even reinstating state control — though that would be an extreme and unlikely move.
Many of the plan’s requirements center on the school board, which gained three new members and a new chairperson last month. As the board adjusts to its newly empowered role, Nelms’ job is to toggle between supervisor and coach.
So she observes their meetings and takes notes — “I record everything that I hear, see, and so on,” she said — arranging extra support in areas where she thinks board members need more guidance. One such area is recognizing the limits of their own authority, she said. (The board’s job is to hire a superintendent and sign off on policy decisions, while the superintendent is in charge of actually running the district.)
“There is a little misunderstanding here, so we’re working on that,” she said. She added, “They may make a misstep in thinking they have the power to do something, and we just have to carefully redirect them.”
If all goes well, the transition will officially end on Jan. 31, 2020. Then Newark’s schools will be fully under local control and Nelms’ job will be complete — a prospect she welcomes.
“I don’t want to have to continue in this position,” she told the audience on Saturday. “I want this district to totally be in your hands.”