NJ Spotlight Conference Considers Future of Cities

By David Cruz

Even as cities continue to be repopulated, or perhaps, because of this, consistent, frank discussions about their present, and their future, are becoming more critical. Whether it’s economic development, crime or education, cities face big issues nowadays and today’s conference was intended to bring decision makers together for a group think on how to tackle some of these big items.

“You know, we’re trying to get really at some of the challenges and the things that do work but also why some things don’t work,” said John Mooney, founding editor and education reporter for NJ Spotlight.

A panel on education – moderated by Mooney – featured Newark Superintendent and former state education commissioner Chris Cerf and Paul Tractenberg, from the Institute on Education Law & Policy, with discussion ranging on the supposed era of reform and even a further consideration of the legacy of Mark Zuckerberg in Newark.

“I think the notion that the district is not materially better in multiple ways now than it was four years ago is factually indefensible and, indeed, borderline preposterous,” snapped Cerf in response to critics of the facebook founder’s philanthropy.

An idea talked about but often quickly dismissed is the concept of a county board of ed, which would – in Essex County say – have kids from urban Newark going to more affluent suburban schools nearby.

“I will tell you, having been in state politics, the probability of that happening in this or the next five lifetimesis very, very low. That doesn’t mean they’re not the right idea, but that’s mnot the world that we have,” added Cerf. “The idea that you’re gonna say ok Montlcair, ok Millburn, we want you to take your fair share of the kids from particular wards in Newark; I love the idea, but I don’t think it’s politically likely to happen.”

Paul Tractenberg, Co-Director, Institute on Education Law & Policy, said there is a need to get beyond conventional wisdom on educational reform. “We can’t regionalize; there’s a political third rail. We can’t go to full state funding; there’s a political third rail. And on and on,” he complained. “I guess I’m here to say that we gotta think outside that box, or outside those rails or otherwise, we’re gonna have this conversation next year, in five years, in ten years.”

At a panel on prisoner re-entry efforts, former governor Jim McGreevey talked about how community members need to acknowledge what is driving the prison population up and what it will take to help ease those men and women back into society when they get out.

“Addiction is the primary cause of people being behind bars. 70% of the people behind bars are addicted, 70 percent! So we need to provide treatment; we need to help people with sober housing and job opportunities,” he said. “We need to start thinking of jails and prisons as a public health crisis as much as it is an incarceration crisis.”

US Attorney Paul Fishman agreed. “20 percent , I think, of the people in prison have a high school education. The rest do not. That’s a ridiculous number,” he noted. “You can’t succeed on the outside if you don’t have a way to make a living;if you don’t have a place to live and if you don’t have people who are gonna support you in some emotional way.”

The conference lasted all day and was expected to culminate with a panel of mayors led by Newark’s Ras Baraka. Organizers acknowledge that they won’t be able to fix all of the problems they discussed here today but that getting everybody in the same room was a good start.