$200 Million...One Forum...Zero Results

Thursday, 08 October 2015 15:52 Walter Elliott




WNYC Public Radio invited Mayor Ras J. Baraka and Newark State District Superintendent of Schools Christopher Cerf to a panel discussion here at NJPAC Sept. 28 to answer questions that were on many residents and stakeholders' minds for the last five years: "Where did Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift and $100 million matching grant go to? How much of that money was fully raised? Did any of it reach Newark Public School classrooms?"

That first question was what WNYC had trumpeted in its discussion promotions for 10 days leading to the event here in NJPAC's Victoria Theater. The moderator herself - by citing the five-year anniversary of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million matching gift announcement in Mayor Cory A. Booker and Gov. Christopher Christie's presence on "Oprah" - opened the discussion.

The $100 million gift and, by "Local Talk" count, $46 million raised by Booker, has dwindled down to $30 million. The Foundation for Newark Education, which oversees the gift's expenditures, will disband when the last $30 million is gone.

The first million was spent by Booker to create FNE and to hold a listening tour among the schools in 2012. There has been some $10,000 to $1 million grants to help existing or jump start various education programs.

The breakdown among Cerf, Baraka and "The Prize" author Dale Russakoff came down include $89 million for labor-related contracts and $20 million for consultants. $33 million of the $89 million was used to pay back teachers in the 2012-15 contract. Some of the other $56 million included starting the first public teacher merit and bonus pay system in the state.

"Some of the funds are like seed that were just planted and we're waiting to see them bloom," said Cerf. "The results of the teacher merit bonus system has yet to take effect. It is clear by an almost all studies I've seen is that having a good qualified teacher in front of the classroom is the key to effective education."

Russakoff when asked afterwards by "Local Talk" said that Booker's $100 million match was met. She said that funding for some charter school programs were used to make up that perceived $44 million gap.

"Local Talk" was left with the impression that Zuckerberg's gift and match was a lot like the current state of the Colorado River. So much had been diverted under the current drought that very little reached its final destination.

"There were some good programs, like the Global Village School Initiative, that was in place before (Cerf predecessor) Cami Anderson came aboard," said Baraka, who was then Central High School principal. "Then the administrators took that away."

Baraka said that true school reform will be stunted until the underlying issues of poverty are also dealt with.

Russakoff observed that the top-down implementation of the One Newark Plan, with little, if any, public participation has left "the unintended consequence that many look at any type of reform in a distrustful way."

That the $200 million in Facebook money has about dried up was not the only takeaway from the 90-minute presentation:

* State mum on local control timetable.

The Newark Educational Success Board met last week (Sept. 23) and they are to submit a road map towards local control by the end of the year (Dec. 31),"said Cerf. "There is no timeline beyond that but, with a committed mayor and a committed governor, we will realize local control."

Cerf, upon his July 8 hiring, has made finding a way to NPS local control his top priority during his three-year contract - if not sooner. It was at that same Sept. 23 meeting at Abyssinian Baptist Church, however, where panelist Mary Bennett told the 100-member audience that she could not get a timetable from state officials.

School parent and Metropolitan Baptist Church Deacon Stephen Outing then told NESB panelist Cerf, "You tell the governor we need a deadline - a date now. Anything else isn't acceptable."

*New NTU President John Abeigon was not available Sept. 28.

The moderator, responding to a public question on where Abeigon was, said that she had sent out an invitation. She then invited the public to listen to her interview with the NTU head from two weeks ago in WNYC's archived podcast.

Abeigon, who was elected to succeed the late Joseph del Grosso in June, is assembling his negotiations team. The contract, which expired June 30, is being honored until a new one is ratified.

There were six chairs on stage - until one was pulled away 20 minutes before the 7:30 start.

*Verbal sparring was saved for the end.

School activist Willie Rowe, as the last of six public speakers, challenged Cerf's credentials beyond being a five-year history teacher. Rowe asked about Cerf's ties to several private education companies, like Amplift.com, and asked about the ethics charges lodged against him while state commissioner.

Cerf countered that "anyone can file ethics charges - the answer is the outcome and I was cleared." He added that he has recused himself from any pending Amplify contracts with NPS.

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