The New Jersey Legislature this year has seen the introduction of a series of bills and resolutions designed partly to curb one woman's influence over public schools in the state's largest city.
Since Republican Governor Chris Christie appointed Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson in 2011, she and her oft-controversial policies have prompted protests and rowdy school board meetings. In recent months, state legislators have stepped in, proposing several bills condemning Anderson’s decisions and giving voice to discontented community members.
Unlike in typical school districts, where a democratically elected school board has the power to vote on a superintendent’s contract, community members and parents in Newark School District have no power in determining who leads the city’s public school students. The district has been under state control since 1995, giving the governor power to appoint Newark's superintendent and relegating the district school board to a largely advisory role.
Dissatisfaction with Anderson surged in December 2013, when she announced the One Newark plan, a school reorganization proposal with the goal of creating “100 excellent schools” by closing and consolidating several Newark schools while expanding charter school influence in the district. Detractors of the plan complain that it was made without community input, but Anderson’s administration says it held and continues to conduct extensive outreach. The district also noted that families have been quick to participate in the plan's expanded school choice options.
The One Newark plan prompted several legislators to propose a bill in January that would require district superintendents in the state to receive their district school board's permission before closing any schools. That bill passed the Senate, but is currently pending approval in the General Assembly.
Also in January, several senators sponsored a bill that would force the state to relinquish control of local school districts after five years of intervention. The bill, which is still in the Senate, would impact the four New Jersey districts currently under state control. A more recent bill, which was introduced at the end of March and is still in the Senate, elaborates on other conditions that would force the state to surrender control of local districts.
In a more specific condemnation of Anderson, the Senate and General Assembly approved a resolution in late February that strongly criticizes her plan to change the district’s teacher layoff process, calling the plan an "attempt to usurp authority of the Legislature.” Anderson intends to lay off more than 1,000 teachers during the next few years and wants to dismiss teachers based on their effectiveness ratings. Current New Jersey law provides for layoffs to be based on teachers' seniority.
“That is purely an economic decision, not an educational one, and it's one that flies in the face of the Legislature and the unions that put a lot of time and effort into getting a new tenure law,” Joseph Del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union told The Huffington Post over the phone. “Why should Newark be singled out as a district where tenure doesn’t matter? Because most people are black? Because most of us are poor?”
District spokespeople say they simply want to make sure the most effective teachers stay in the classroom, especially in the face of dwindling district enrollment.
"Families are voting with their feet in search of excellent schools. When they choose non-NPS options, money follows the student and with diminished funds, NPS cannot sustain its current number of employees,” Vanessa Rodriguez, the district’s chief talent officer said in a statement provided to HuffPost. “We believe our students deserve the best and that NPS, just like high-performing public charters and private schools, should be able to consider quality alongside years of service in making staffing decisions."
Newark School District representatives would not comment on the pending bills related to the district. In a previous interview with Education Week, Anderson noted that she is "an educator, not a politician."
"In an election year where some are prioritizing running for office by fueling dysfunctional events rather than productive conversations, we will continue to find ways to collaborate with school advisory board members, families, and leaders to improve the lives of our students," said Anderson to the outlet.
Even though the school board previously gave Anderson a symbolic vote of "no confidence" last April, Chris Christie has not given any indication that he is concerned with the community's opposition to her. When asked in September 2013 if he planned to renew Anderson's contract, Christie said, "[W]e’re going to renew it because she’s done a great job, and I don’t care about the community criticism. ... We run the school district in Newark, not them."