At a Newark Advisory School Board meeting earlier this week, Mayor Ras Baraka ended his comments to the Board this way (video here):
“This is the point of no return. We cannot suffer this any longer. There’s no room for compromise. The Mayor suggests that she [Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson] pack her things and leave…I’m going to take my detail and go to 2 Cedar Street and we’re going to walk her out the front door.”
Really? "The Mayor" (does he always refer to himself in the third person?) of New Jersey’s largest city is threatening to forcibly remove the state-appointed superintendent from Newark Public Schools’ central office, At best, this threat is unstatesmanlike. At worst, it’s criminal.
Mayor Baraka’s full remarks are worth some dissection, because they show him both at his best and his worst. There’s a history here of a long-seething feud between the Mayor and the Superintendent. In fact, Baraka has Anderson to thank for his mayoral post: he won by turning his campaign into a referendum on Anderson. Nothing brings out the votes like creating a villain, and he was ably aided by the Newark Teachers Union, distressed by a performance-based contract once heralded by AFT President Randi Weingarten that the union approved, and a super PAC called New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
Some of what Mayor Baraka called for in his speech to the School Board was perfectly reasonable: an explanation for the district’s $70 million budget deficit, reports on the district’s progress on the state accountability metric called QSAC, answers about former Newark Assistant Superintendent Tiffany Hardwick, who received sick pay from Newark Public Schools while she was simultaneously working at her new job as superintendent in Forrest City, Arkansas.
But then he diverges into implications that the district is concealing information when, in fact, most of that most of that information is available to anyone who logs onto the Newark Public Schools’ homepage. There are links to both the district’s projected 2015-2016 budget and a solid powerpoint that covers many of Baraka’s queries. For example, regarding the budget deficit, the powerpoint explains that while per pupil allocations will increase by 3.6%,
Our revenue is down, and our costs are rising: − Our healthcare premiums are projected to increase by approximately 7.5% − New requirements under the Affordable Care Act will increase our benefit costs for per diem employees.
We must decrease our spending as a result of a decline in revenue and increasing costs. However, we will continue to prioritize school funding, make investments in strategic priorities, and better leverage earmarked funds.
Also, student enrollment at charter schools will increase next year by about 850 students, bringing tuition payments to $225,517,974, about $25 million more than last year.
So, many answers to the Mayor’s questions are merely a click away, And, certainly, the Board President Ariagna Perello or Business Administrator Valerie Wilson or the Superintendent (who – let’s just say it – should be present at board meetings) could, at any well-functioning board meeting, easily respond.
The Mayor loses more credibility when he veers from reasonable questions to allegations of “fraudulent data” and information that, he calls, “at best suspicious,” especially regarding drop-out rates and student attendance. (The D.O.E.’s School Performance Report mistakenly printed that student attendance was almost 100%.) He calls on the Newark Teachers Union to rebel “until this lady leaves our city immediately.” Then he threatens to drag her out.
That’s not much of a model for schoolchildren whose needs, by the way, are completely unrepresented in the Mayor’s remarks. He decries school closures and turnaround schools without any reference to student achievement. He implies that poor black children are disproportionately represented in schools subject to turnaround strategies, but neglects to say that the demographics are representative of the entire student body.
Remember the New Yorker piece by Dale Russakoff, where Baraka is described as a secret education reformer? Russakoff describes Baraka's "aggressive turnaround strategy" while principal of Trenton's Central High School and his appropriation of reform strategies. "I stole ideas from everyone," Baraka says. Writes Russakoff, "In private, Baraka supported many of the reformers' critiques of the status quo, including revoking tenure for teachers with the lowest evaluations. Although he publicly embraced the unions' positions, he told me he opposed paying teachers based on seniority and degrees, as Newark did under its union contract. "We should make a base pay, and the only way to go up is based on student performance," he said. He told me that many in Newark quietly agreed."
That's one of the ironies of the current Newark school battle. When Mayor Baraka was Principal Baraka, he was focused on student performance and aligned with at least some of Anderson's efforts at reform. Now as Mayor, he's upholding the stagnant bureaucracy he once denigrated, one that has failed Newark students for decades. Even worse, he's setting a terrible example for the students he once taught as he threatens to stride down to Cedar Street with his "detail" and strongarm Anderson out of her office.
I know Newark politics are messy, but Baraka's approach is dishonorable.