By David Cruz
When you’re brought in to run the largest school system in the state of New Jersey, you must know that changing that system, even a little, is going to result in push back. For Superintendent Cami Anderson push back has now come to shove, and her controversial “One Newark” school reorganization Plan has become such an explosive issue that is has affected the outcome of the race for mayor and has become the most serious threat to the state-appointed superintendent’s tenure. NJTV sat with Anderson for an exclusive interview on the city’s schools crisis.
Anderson: Political season is always tough. People say a lot of things, but my job was and always remains keeping laserly focused on a day when we have 100 great schools. Laserly! Because the consequences of not doing that are profound, so I try really hard to live up to my responsibilities and my goals and let the politics play out as they will.
Cruz: But you also have to function in that political landscape, don’t you?
Anderson: Oh, absolutely. I have a good working relationship with Mr. [Shavar] Jeffries. I have had a productive relationship with Mr. [Ras] Baraka. It is absolutely my job, as you point out, to find common ground with stakeholders and try to move this district forward. At the end of the day that’s my charge and I take it very seriously because kids’ lives are at stake.
But finding common ground has been difficult. Since she came on board in 2011, Anderson has been a lightening rod, closing schools, firing teachers and principals and now proposing a radical shift in the way Newark schoolkids learn — a plan called “One Newark.” One Newark closes some schools and turns them over to charter operators and transfers some kids — like the ones at Newark Vocational High School — to schools out of their neighborhoods, like West Side High, over a mile away.
“She would have to take two buses,” said Dionisia Green, whose granddaughter attends Newark Vocational. “She would have to take the 39 to get downtown and then the 31 to get to West Side and I don’t think it’s right to send those kids all the way to West Side. This is the main school where they should be going and this school should stay right here.”
Natasha Allen, a mother of a junior at Newark Vocational scoffed at Anderson’s goal of “100 Great Schools.”
“You can’t attain 100 great schools by closing down our traditional Newark Public Schools,” she said, “so because she’s here as the state-appointed superintendent of the Newark Public Schools, we need her to be an advocate for Newark Public Schools instead of spearheading the charter school takeover.”
But Anderson doesn’t see it that way.
Anderson: We feel as if the district was in a pretty tough spot. You saw a lot of families leaving in droves to go to charters, and I’ve been very public in saying I believe the district has to fight back and remain viable. I don’t believe in an all-charter system.
Cruz: But your critics say that’s what you’re moving the system to, a predominately charter system.
Anderson: I appreciate the opportunity to clarify. Our plan actually does not add any new charter seats. Our plan actually takes those operators who have been in Newark and who families want. They have waiting lists. They have lots of people begging for more, working with those that are already here and making sure that the charters who have things that families want are in the communities where families are asking for them. But One Newark is about saving the district, making the district relevant, making sure district schools are incredible, that families are choosing them and so we have a system of real choice.
Anderson has come under fire most recently for her decision to stop attending the often-raucous Board of Education meetings, where she has been insulted, threatened and often shouted down.
Anderson: There are lots of things that happen with board business that are not at the one public meeting. There are committee meetings, there are briefings.
Cruz: But you know that this is a public meeting where they want to see you.
Anderson: There are meetings, and, as a matter of fact in discussing the transition with the new board chair, he agreed that business needs to happen and there are a small number of individuals who have made the meetings about me and brought them, in some way, to a halt.
Case in point, the Newark Students Union, which has staged walkouts, sit-ins and occupied a recent board meeting, calling for Anderson’s ouster. This confrontation escalated when Anderson appeared to be lecturing the students on civics. A meeting with Anderson and the state education commissioner this week did little to bring the sides together.
“The community obviously doesn’t want this plan but she continues to push it, rally after rally, walkout after walkout, boycott after boycott,” said Newark Students Union President Kristin Towkaniuk. “We’ve been here since November 2012 and we’re not going anywhere.”
Anderson: These are complicated, thorny issues that adults have to solve. I’m happy to have them at the table doing that. It’s obviously a little more difficult when the demands are for my resignation. There’s not a lot to talk about with that. I have no intentions of resigning.
But Cami Anderson’s future as the leader of the Newark Public schools is more uncertain than it’s ever been. Mayor-Elect Ras Baraka — who used opposition to Anderson as a rallying point for his campaign — made it clear again this week that he will not accept Anderson staying on as superintendent.
“I was a principal of a school. When the people who work for you lose faith and trust in you, it’s very hard to regain that,” said Baraka this week. “At Central High School, if all the teachers and staff and students had no faith in my ideas, it’s difficult for me to transform anything because it begins with faith and trust and she’s lost the faith and trust of the people in this city.”
Cruz: We spoke to [Baraka] earlier today and he seemed pretty adamant that there is no going forward with you as superintendent of schools.
Anderson: Again my job is to find common ground and I believe that Mr. Baraka wants the best for children and that he wants great schools. And as adults and our job is to find common ground.
Cruz: Is that enough to find common ground?
Anderson: It’s got to be. We’ve got to find common ground because our kids deserve it.
Cruz: So, your contract is up in June. If the state says “do you wanna stick around?” you do want to stick around?
Anderson: I’m so passionate about our city, about our young people, hopeful about the progress I see. I’m an optimist and I believe our kids deserve us to keep them at the core of every decision and I believe so strongly that we can do what we need to do for our kids that I am absolutely committed to staying the course and putting kids at the core of every decision.
Cruz: You think the state wants you back?
Anderson: I have every intention of staying and I have every intention of staying the course.
But it probably won’t be up to her. The education commissioner will decide whether Anderson stays, and sources tell us that decision is still very much up in the air.