Disunity in Newark As Voters Prepare to Select School Board Members

In less than two weeks Newark voters will elect three new members of their Board of Education and the stakes have never been higher. After twenty-two years of state control, city representatives will once again oversee every aspect of New Jersey’s largest and most politically-convoluted school district. As if this set of circumstances weren’t challenging enough, the education community’s spanking-new solidarity is in danger of fracture.

For many decades Newark board members have been beholden to powerful politicos —  the Mayor and Ward leaders — who typically endorse slates of three candidates. For example, in both 2014 and 2015 Mayor Ras Baraka, who won his own election by warping his campaign into a referendum on then-Superintendent Cami Anderson, ran a slate called “Children First.” But last year a new powerhouse rode into town, a pro-charter organization called PC2E, which magically finagled a “Unity Slate” — one candidate chosen by Mayor Ras Baraka, one chosen by charter advocates, and one chosen by Councilman Anibal Ramos of the North Ward.

PC2E’s 2016 strategy was to buy time in order to avoid a political war with Mayor Baraka, who favors a charter school moratorium and called the parent-hailed expansion of KIPP and Uncommon “highly irresponsible.”  The slate was comprised of Kim Gaddy, (PC2E’s choice),  Tave Padilla (Councilman Ramos’ choice), and Leah Owens, a decidedly anti-choice candidate chosen by Baraka who is one of the founders of  the Newark Education Workers Caucus, the militant arm of the Newark Teachers Union, and works for New Jersey Communities United, which opposes school choice.

The Unity Slate swept the election.

In fact, this strategy did seem to produce unity, a sharp contrast with the  typical divisiveness of Newark elections. PC2E’s success last year also seemed to signify a new acceptance by Mayor Baraka and the Newark Teachers Union that public charter schools, which currently educate thirty-one percent of Newark schoolchildren, are permanent fixtures in the city’s educational landscape.

But this year was supposed to be different. PC2E (as it told its funders) planned to run a slate of three pro-choice candidates in order to secure a majority on the nine-member Board which will need to find consensus on the mighty challenges confronting the district. These include choosing a new superintendent to replace state-appointed Chris Cerf, managing the district’s fiscal distress (last year’s budget included a $72 million deficit), dealing with unpopular albeit necessary school closures as student enrollment continues to drop due to parental preference for independently-operated public charter schools, and addressing unacceptably low student achievement in parts of the traditional sector. (Example: at Weequahic High School two percent of students achieved college readiness scores in math on last year’s ACT test.)

However, while there is, once again, a (very) well-funded  2017 Unity Slate, the acceptance by political leaders of Newark’s changing educational landscape appears to have been ephemeral. According to inside sources who wish to remain anonymous, PC2E produced a menu of four prospective pro-reform candidates to Baraka: Oscar James, Charles Love, Rashon Hasan, and Randolph Higgins. All are eminently qualified. Oscar James is Director of Operations for PC2E with a political science degree from Villanova and a former South Ward Councilman. Charles Love works with a nonprofit organization that serves at-risk teens in Essex, Passaic and Hudson counties and is studying for his doctorate in Organizational Behavior. Rashon Hasan is the first college graduate in his family  (he also has an MBA) and formerly served on the Newark Board of Education.

But Baraka vetoed all four because they were not adequately deferential  So much for unity. So much for PC2E running an all-pro-reform slate. So much for PC2E’s raison d’etre.

And then Charles Love, a fourth-generation Newarker who used to be the Family Engagement Coordinator for PC2E, decided to run as an independent. His motto is,  appropriately,  “it’s time to take back power from politicians and give it back to the people.”

Last week Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins announced she wasn’t backing the Unity Slate as she did last year but instead was endorsing Charles Love. (She also endorsed another candidate, former Newark Public Schools Acting Superintendent Deborah Terrell.) Love has also received official endorsements from former Newark board president Leonard Anton Wheeler, New Jersey State Democratic Committee Chair Chris James, and South Ward Senior District Leader Hope Jackson. LaVar Young,  head of the New Jersey Black Alliance for Educational Options, endorsed last year’s Unity Slate but declined to do so this year because he doesn’t “think the candidates had enough experience to run a $1 billion school system.” (Two of the three members of the Unity Slate didn’t get past high school.)

Another force in Newark education politics is the grassroots parent group called Hands Off Our Future Collective. It has made no official endorsements. However, on its Facebook page there is this exchange:

“Voters should vote as the mayor has indicated …like they voted for the Mayor…#GoBaraka #MayorBaraka #RasBaraka
#FollowTheLeader “

“That’s the damn problem, you guys wants puppets. Did you just say VOTERS should VOTE as the Mayor as indicated? I have a question: who the hell is the Mayor to tell VOTERS how to VOTE?”

That, indeed, is the question that will confront voters at the polls on April 25th as they select three new Board of Education members.  PC2E’s future may ride in the balance.

What do you think?

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