Now that Newark schools have regained control from the state, the first Newark School Board-selected superintendent in 22 years is six days into the job and has already signaled he plans to shake things up. Roger Leon joins Senior Correspondent David Cruz.
Cruz: Your first meeting with the board, you tried to make some personnel changes, additions and subtractions, and then the board rejects you. What does that say? What kind of relationship do you expect it’s going to be? It’s really kind of new in the city of Newark. I mean, it’s been almost 30 years since there was an independent board and an independent superintendent. You are going to have to recreate that relationship, I guess.
Leon: So, it’s absolutely what democracy is all about. The members of the board have been elected by the citizens of the city of Newark, and they are judges on all of the actions that they take. It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see it as appropriate. In fact, many of the actions that were needed to get us started at the start of the school year have in fact been approved unanimously by the board, and I’m appreciative of them for that. It’s going to be on me to compel them to see how I see the organization, convince them accordingly, and allow the citizens of Newark to determine their fate at the ballot box.
Cruz: It’s new. Do you feel a little bit like you have to recalibrate that, reset that, so people know how that’s supposed to work?
Leon: I think that one of the responsibilities that I actually do have is to explain to everyone that cares about our city, that it is a new day, that they are assuming full 100 percent local control of the school district, and that business as usual, as it relates to not only our hires, but vendors that are working with our school district and the expectations that we have in improving our school district are not necessarily different from what anyone thought in the past, but renewed in the sense that they will be held responsible for that.
Cruz: You were an assistant superintendent for a decade, so you’ve seen what’s gone on over the last 10 years. What would you say is the lasting impact of not only the tenure of the state here, but what these last five, six, seven years of really hard, grinding change will be? What is the lasting impact of that going to be?
Leon: Well, I think that the last seven years is really indicative of some very aggressive reform efforts. But it’s also true of what has occurred over the last 22 years in the initial time of the past five superintendents, the first being Dr. Hall, was the actual state takeover of the school district.
Cruz: Where were you at the time of the takeover?
Leon: I was actually a teacher in the district when the state took over. One of my first appointments under Dr. Hall actually was to become the principal of Dr. Horton School. With Dr. Bolden, we have the community superintendent, also a child from the city focusing in and providing energy, renewed energy, with where we needed to go, and the importance of the morale and how to actually get there. Dr. Janey arrived, and as the superintendent of the school district at that point in time, he had a national perspective as to what we needed to do, and compared children in Newark from schools in Millburn, to high-performing school districts throughout the country. In the last seven years in particular under the Anderson administration, we had the greatest reform efforts that really provided an urgency of now in terms of moving the organization in the direction that she saw fit. Lastly, in the last couple of years, the last three in particular, we had Chris Cerf, former commissioner of our state, and what he actually provided was the transition to where we are today — local control. Now, it’s going to be my responsibility to take all of the learnings that occurred, and there have been many, and move the organization progressively forward, not only to provide clarity in 2020, which is the optional objective in this next year and a half, but to actually set the stage as to what’s going to happen in the next decade.
Cruz: You said you wanted to be a ‘proficient and influential agent of change’, yet you kept the Newark Enrolls program, this is leftover from the Anderson administration, which some critics said favored charter schools. Do you buy that argument, and what do you think the proper balance of charter and so-called traditional schools should be?
Leon: The whole conversation about enrollment in the school district is quite interesting. In particular, we’ve never had an enrollment system before. Each individual school created its own.
Cruz: You went to the school in your neighborhood, right?
Leon: You actually went to the school that was nearest your home and you went there. Right now, we have one enrollment system for the entire city of Newark, and I think that that’s a great move.
Cruz: You pick your schools, right?
Leon: There’s a time period where, in fact, you go through the application process. You determine which school is the best one for your child and you rank them. The entire enrollment conversation is based on one premise, and I think its intent is extremely admirable, and that is that every school in the city of Newark should be worthy of a child attending it. While there has been a lot of conversation about how it was implemented from the start, and even as it’s viewed today, the ultimate point of the enrollment system is to say that the schools that are nearest you should actually be a school worthy of you selecting it. It is my responsibility as the superintendent of schools to make sure that school is the best possible school, that the school a mile away is the best possible school, and the school that’s the furthest away becomes an actual option for a parent to choose if in fact that’s where they want their child to go to.
Cruz: Newark, and I don’t have to tell you this, is a town where politics leaks into everything. As you go forward, what do you want to say to folks who are concerned about a return to local control as a potential return to the battle days? I have about 20 seconds for that answer.
Leon: The last 22 years has been indicative of incredible learnings, as well as what occurred previous to that time period. This is not a different page that we are moving the Newark Board of Education and our schools in. This is in fact a new book where we are taking all of the lessons that we’ve learned and say that is actually part of the past. So the whole idea that the state would come into our school district, that politics will infiltrate our system, that there are issues with our finances, while understanding that those will be concerns of people, they can be satisfied that that is very much in the past as well.