A Red Pen for Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's Temper Tantrum over Newark Public Schools' State Aid

Last week Mayor Baraka issued a statement on Newark Public Schools' $72 million budget gap, bemoaning the fact that the deficit will raise local property taxes.  While his numbers are correct -- the 2016-2017 school portion of property tax bills will increase by 6.2% -- his reasoning is flawed. As a public service, here's a few corrections.

"The people of Newark are being forced to pay for bad decisions by state officials, including the hole left in the budget by state-appointed School Superintendent Cami Anderson’s One Newark Plan."

The attribution of the budget gap to the universal enrollment plan initiated by Anderson is incorrect. That said, "Newark Enrolls'" implementation was rushed and problematic. But that's not a money problem: it's a management problem. Under the leadership of Superintendent Chris Cerf, the system is operating far more efficiently and effectively. As Cerf told NJ Advance Media last fall,
I do believe in the broad idea of taking central ownership of student enrollment, not leaving it to individual schools, and building everything on trying to prefer parents' choices. So I did know about that in advance, and I supported it. Now I will also say, that the execution of those values, particularly in the first year, was problematic, meaning it was a very complex system, it was new and there were plenty of bumps and wrinkles. I will also say that it is worthy of revision and modification. For example, I personally think we should give a greater preference to neighborhood. I personally believe in giving what's called sibling preference, in giving priority to a family who already has a student in a particular school is a priority that we ought to create. But I also believe that essentially you need to have neutral tiebreakers.
One of the "bad decisions" that the residents of Newark are paying for, says Mayor Baraka, is "the EWPS list (Employees without Placement Sites) of Cami Anderson that forced the Newark Public Schools to pay twice for every unassigned teacher on the list."

It is true that Cami Anderson created a "rubber room" for teachers deemed ineffective and that this decision was very expensive for the district. Mayor Baraka, however, inadvertently points to one of the unresolved problems with N.J.'s 2012 tenure reform law that requires long paper trails of proof of inefficiency and individualized professional development plans in order to remove tenure. (Anderson attempted to bypass the law by appealing directly to the Legislature; she was, unsurprisingly, rebuffed.) That's due process for you -- not a bad thing -- and a big improvement over N.J.'s old system of lifetime job security for school staff after three years of employment. Superintendent Cerf was placed in the unfortunate, if fiscally necessary, position of sending those teachers back to classrooms, regardless of classroom effectiveness. In doing so, he substantially reduced the budget gap last year.

Another "bad decision," according to Mayor Baraka's statement, was "the expansion of charter schools without regard for the impact of that expansion on the budget of the remaining traditional public schools."

Bad decision? Only if you belief that parent rights are subjugated by public monopolies. The April 19th school board election validated those rights when two out of three candidates elected ran on pro-choice platforms and what the Star-Ledger called a "new army" of parents demanded access to charter schools. That's a fiscal burden on the traditional system because districts technically pay 90% of per pupil cost {in reality, it's often less) when students move to charters, necessitating down-sizing. What's the alternative? Oh, right -- curtailing all charter school growth and trouncing on parent rights through a charter moratorium backed by Baraka, NJEA, the Newark Teachers Union, Save Our Schools-NJ, Education Law Center.

“With the support of the Municipal Council, State Legislators, and advocates for both traditional public schools and charter schools, we asked Governor Christie for $36 million to cut the $72 million Newark Public Schools budget deficit in half. In a letter, we told the Governor that the loss of every student to a charter school would cause traditional public schools to bear a disproportionate share of fixed costs, significantly reducing the amount that each school has available.

In response to this letter,  Christie allocated an additional $27 million to Newark Public Schools as a form of "transitional aid" to help ameliorate increased tuition payments to charter schools. This is in spite of the fact that there are 85 districts in N.J. that are more under-aided than Newark, the state is broke, and state aid allocations are a zero-sum game. See Jeff Bennett for more on the Baraka's chutzpah.

As CapitalNewYork reported,  Gov. Christie responded to the Mayor,  "thousands of your constituents are choosing [charter schools] every year over traditional public schools in Newark because they give their children a better chance at a brighter future." And, "Mayor Baraka somehow complains about this extraordinary level of aid (about $718 million from the state this past year, according to the D.O.E. database) [but] "he should consult his fellow Mayors in the suburbs and rural areas whose property taxes are artificially high due to this court-ordered disproportionate aid to the Newark school district.”