EDUCATION

Education Commissioner Defends Stance on Public Schools

By David Cruz
NJ Today

Questions about the state takeover of the schools system and fears of privatization dominated a public meeting in Jersey City with state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. The meeting, hosted by State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, highlighted lingering distrust in a school system that has been under state control since 1989.

It started with a testy exchange.

“If you’re interested in having a discussion I’m here to have one,” Cerf snapped at one heckler. “If you’re interested in shouting out nonsense, I’m not going to be a part of that.”

Commissioner Cerf — notoriously media averse — is also not too keen on public meetings, like the one hosted in Jersey City by Cunningham. Cerf, a former executive at a private education management company, has had difficulty convincing public school advocates that he favors publicly-run school districts.

“I am absolutely stunned and astonished that serious citizens — seriously sophisticated people — can buy into this notion that there is some vast corporate conspiracy out there,” he said.

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Cerf has been a controversial presence in a number of school districts in the state, playing a key role — albeit in the background — in promoting the candidacies of Cami Anderson in Newark and Marcia Lyles in Jersey City, and interceding on behalf of Janine Caffrey, the embattled school’s chief in Perth Amboy. Caffrey was dismissed again last week by the Perth Amboy Board of Education, and her fate rests once again with Cerf, who refuses to say how he’ll rule this time.

“We knew that there were issues; we knew that people had problems,” said Cunningham. “There is a certain amount of distrust. I did not expect that to go away in one sitting.”

The audience of mostly teachers and parents chided Cerf for not meeting with them sooner and for meeting secretly with board members who supported the candidacy of eventual Superintendent Marcia Lyles. But the big issue in Jersey City remains state control of the nearly $700 million school system, which at the time of the takeover was one of the worst in the state.

“The first plan was to stay for four to five years and turn it over in five years. That didn’t happen,” said frustrated parent Monique Andrews. “Actually curriculum is being given to us by the state, so if you’re giving us the curriculum, that means that you’re making the test and correcting the test. Where’s the checks and balances?”

The status of the takeover is something that new superintendent Lyles says rests in the hands of the local board. “We need to be in control,” she said. “We need to have the capacity, though, to make sure that people are not saying we can’t do this. I believe very much that we can.”

If the goal of this meeting was to build trust, then the sense we got from the residents we spoke to was that the meeting fell short of that, but, if as Sen. Cunningham said the goal was to start a dialogue, then at least that goal has been met.