Newark Prepares to go Back to School Amidst Political Disagreements

By Brenda Flanagan
Correspondent

They lined up for free book bags at Terrell Homes — the projects. Families looking for school supplies and a free meal too. It’s all paid for by local non-profits and needy kids from Newark’s public and charter schools would each get notebooks, folders, pencils — the works.

On how much would it cost to go out and buy all this stuff, William Smith said, “Upwards of $100 because you need supplies, uniforms. Everything’s expensive these days.”

“Nieces, nephews, cousins, friends — everybody that wanted to come out, come out to take advantage of it. Because a lot of communities don’t get this type of help,” said Tequila Dobbins.

“It’s the beginning of the school year and we want kids to know there are people that care about them, make sure they have what they need,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Baraka’s handed out thousands of book bags over the past couple of days, in a city where 42 percent of kids live below poverty level and the public school district faces a $15 million budget deficit. The ongoing titanic struggle to wrest back local control from the state still dominates the political landscape, as chronicled by “The Prize” — a book by Dale Russakoff.
Baraka hasn’t read his advance copy yet, he says.

“We’re in this make-no-excuses era where people think that they could do things and ignore poverty. But you can’t,” Baraka said.

Baraka pressured Gov. Chris Christie to dump former Superintendent Cami Anderson, after a disastrous rollout of her One Newark School plan sparked local rebellion and student demonstrations. Christie replaced her with his former Education Commissioner, Chris Cerf. Battle lines are drawn.

When asked if he can work with Cerf and Christie, Baraka said, “Well I don’t have any choice. They’re in charge. I mean, we’re gonna disagree. We’re gonna battle when we need to. But ultimately we have to find the opportunity to move these schools forward.”

And national politics now keeps both Christie and Sen. Cory Booker largely focused elsewhere. But in Newark, almost one out of three students attends charters — which siphon funding away from traditional public schools. Former school board president Shavar Jeffries says the district still needs to attract and reward great teachers and shed the bad ones, over union objections.

“And when you have a district that’s subject to the kind of political and bureaucratic drama that we’ve seen in Newark for a long period of time, that may not be that attractive to the professionals we need,” said Jeffries.

The book concludes that even with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, reform by top-down fiat just doesn’t work and that reformers moving forward should put aside politics and focus instead on the kids — in a city where the biggest obstacle to learning is poverty.