Some See Cerf as Sorry Selection for Newark’s Schools

By David Cruz

Opponents of soon to be former Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson say her departure is not the end of their struggle. In fact, they say, in many ways, the man the governor wants to replace Anderson — former state education commissioner Chris Cerf — is worse. So is there no victory to celebrate?

“Absolutely not because if they continue to bring Cerf in this district — we’re talking about a man who was in New York and closed 90 public schools, 90,” said Newark resident Veronica Branch. “We only have 66 here left in the city of Newark, so closing 66 — if he closed 90 — then 66 is a cake walk for him.”

Cerf’s controversial tenure as education commissioner includes appointing Anderson, approving her reform initiatives and denying Newark return of any local control, despite the system’s reaching state-mandated benchmarks last year. He’s a former deputy chancellor in New York City. That’s where he first met Anderson. The governor praised both Anderson and Cerf recently as positive agents of change.

“I’m just happy that Chris Cerf was willing to leave the private sector and come back,” he told a Trenton press conference. “His involvement in Cami’s selection, his involvement in the changes that have gone on there and his experience as an educator is gonna make him a really good next step in Newark as we move towards continuing to improve the schools there.”

The timing of the governor’s announcement about Anderson came as a surprise to some. It’s seen as a political pivot as he heads into presidential election mode. In a statement, he said he would be working closely with Mayor Ras Baraka on a “roadmap” for return to local control. After 20 years under state control, that sounds good, but it’s left some activists questioning the mayor.

“We weren’t consulted about that, number one,” said parent Kyeatta Hendricks. “Number two, I don’t know how the mayor can have the power to do that because at this point if the state is in control and he doesn’t want mayoral control, then I don’t understand how he can decide.”

Even State Sen. Ron Rice, a major Baraka backer, says he disagrees with the choice of Cerf, even if it is, as some have speculated, an interim appointment. He says Cerf and Anderson were the tip of the spear of efforts to replace traditional public schools with charter schools.

“They were here to do just what has taken place,” he said. “Destroy a system, privatize it as much they can under the auspices of helping urban kids when, in fact, they were looking at a billion dollar budget and finding ways and means to transition taxpayer dollars to their political friends and people from other associations.”

Many of the demonstrators here say they will be in Trenton tomorrow when the state Board of Education meets to consider a three-year contract for Cerf. Most observers don’t see Cerf serving three years, but the road to local control of Newark’s public schools promises to be anything but a smooth straight line.