Monday, April 18, 2016

Newark School Board Elections Tomorrow: Here's What You Need to Know

Newark School Advisory Board elections are tomorrow and there’s much at stake for New Jersey’s largest school district. Within the next year or so (most likely right before or after the gubernatorial election in November 2017), the State will cede its twenty-year control of Newark Public Schools and the Board will shift from one of advice to one of consent. One of the first tasks of this nine-member body (three seats are up on Tuesday) will be to choose a new superintendent.

When new board members attend New Jersey School Boards Association training sessions they hear that choosing a new superintendent is a board's most important task. Most veteran school board members (myself included) would agree.

Political dynamics in Newark are complex, riven by wards, families, and ethnicity. (See Ballotpedia for a deep dive.) This divisiveness is mirrored in school board elections. Usually Newark power-brokers run their own slates. For example, right now five of the nine current board members owe their seats to the backing of Mayor Ras Baraka's “Children First Team" while the "For Our Children" slate is associated with  the North Ward's Steve Adubato.

(Aside: last year the Star-Ledger reported that since Baraka became mayor in 2014 “at least three of those [school board members] have been hired by the city or one of its agencies – including two of the three members he campaigned for in 2015, Marques-Aquil Lewis and Dashay Carter.”)

But this year is different because the Mayor has agreed to sit this one out and not run a "Children First" set of candidates. Instead he's endorsing a “Unity Slate” comprised of candidates Kim Gaddy, Tave Padilla, and Leah Owens. Owens, a Newark Teachers Union leader and anti-reform activist, is Baraka’s choice. Padilla represents the North Ward. Gaddy is a reform-minded candidate.

Another ten candidates are on the ballot as well, including Jody Pittman who is closely aligned with the Hands Off Our Future Collective, a grassroots group that advocates for school options.

In another change of dynamics, there’s a new organization on the ground called Parent Coalition for Excellent Education. PCE2 is run by Muhammed Akil, Oscar James, and Matthew Frankel, but at a recent visit the group seemed primarily run by parents, who work under the direction of Family Engagement Coordinator Charles Love, himself a former school board candidate.  The shared vision is to create a “parent voice apparatus” so that parents, not bureaucrats, drive the market. To that end, PCE2 has been conducting energetic voter registration drives in order to drive up Newark’s historically anemic turnout (about 7%).

A satellite office of PCE2, under the direction of Bryan Morton, recently opened in Camden and replaces the organization Parents for Great Camden Schools.

Polls are open on Tuesday from 8 am to 8 pm. Here’s a list of polling stations.

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