It’s been over twenty years since the state took control of Newark Public School’s because of low graduation rates and overall poor student performance. It’s been a rocky road for the city’s education system since, and many residents believe not much has changed over the course of time.
At First Avenue School in Newark’s North Ward, about 100 city residents gathered to hear Mayor Ras Baraka’s latest updates on regaining local control of schools. They had their own concerns.
“I just want to talk about transitioning back to local control. Transitioning back to a superintendent that we select as a community. Transitioning back to children going to their local schools,” asked one Newark resident.
“When can we have a discussion about local school board members?”
“What role will the elections play that will take place in the interim from today until we receive state control?”
Mayor Baraka is ready to start having those discussions.
“We have to have them honestly. We have to have them open in a transparent way. We have to build the capacity to be able to run this school district,” Baraka said.
Local control is an important discussion for Mayor Baraka, it’s been a top priority of his administration since day one.
“It’s self-determination and a democracy, right? So at the end of the day we have the right to determine our own destiny. But because we are citizens of the United States, we think that democracy should benefit all of us. We pay taxes, and the state is obligated to help us just like they help everybody else in the state. But just because they’re helping us doesn’t mean they have to be in control.”
A lot has changed from the days when students and teachers were flooding the streets in downtown Newark protesting former state appointed public schools superintendent Cami Anderson and her controversial One Newark Plan. In early 2017 Baraka calls local control a forgone conclusion.
“Today or yesterday, we get to talk about people in charge but tomorrow we’ll be the ones in charge, so the fingers will be pointed at us. It’s important for us to be able to have the mindset where we are responsible for what’s happening in our school system and our city.”
Under the Quality Single Accountability System, known as QSAC, the law that gives the state authority to take over a school district and also return it to local control, a city needs to achieve satisfactory performance in five areas. Instruction and Program, Personnel, Fiscal Management, Operations Management, and Governance.
“The major piece that we are waiting on is Governance,” Baraka said. We believe that if the district keeps continuing in the direction that it’s going in, sometime this summer when the state commissioner and the Board comes back, they’ll return governance to Newark.”
That’s when a plan needs to be put in place.
“We don’t want to have this discussion five-years from now when the state makes another decision to say ‘Hey, maybe we need to come back and do it again. We need to make sure we’re on a path that does not lead us in that direction. That may take some state legislation and some other things, but on our part locally here, we need to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction so that does not happen to us again.”
Regarding future city school board members and a replacement for current superintendent Chris Cerf, Mayor Baraka hopes to leave those decisions to the residents in Newark.
“I want an elected school board, that’s what I want. As a citizen I’m going to participate in the election myself. I’m going to vote for who I want to be elected and as a person who has a voice, I’m going to make my voice heard about who I think should be elected, who I think should be the superintendent, which direction I think the city should go in. I’m going to be completely and totally involved in that process.”
At the end of the current school year, a QSAC review by the state will determine whether Newark has maintained progress in the remaining areas under state control. Baraka is sure a transition of governance will take place.
“I’m just happy that we’re past this kind of obstacle where we are anticipating local control coming to us. I think there’s a lot of work for us to do as residents, as elected officials, as leaders both private and public in this city to turn the district over to a place where we think is going to work for all of our children. I want every single building where kids are supposed to be to be successful. Every building in this city has to support kids and their access to higher education.”
Mayor Baraka expects local control will return to Newark Public Schools for the fall 2017-18 school year.