As local control looms, Newark school board members say city jobs won't affect votes

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on October 28, 2015

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, shown here in a file photo, is defending the hiring of three Newark School Advisory Board members since he took office.

 

NEWARK – Nearly half of Newark's elected school board are employed by the city or one of its agencies, though they insist their jobs will not compromise their positions as the state prepares to place much of the oversight of the city's schools in their hands.

Though it has retained little to no decision-making power since the state seized control of Newark schools in 1995, the 9-member board has emerged as a prominent voice, vocally opposing controversial decisions such as the "One Newark" open enrollment system and reorganization plan championed by former superintendent Cami Anderson, and the lack of direct input from parents over their children's education.

Mayor Ras Baraka, widely considered a leading voice against state oversight of the schools, backed more than half of the board as members of his annual "Children First" slate, dating back to his tenure as South Ward Councilman.

Since he took office in July 2014, at least three of those have been hired by the city or one of its agencies – including two of the three members he campaigned for in 2015, Marques-Aquil Lewis and Dashay Carter.

Lewis, a minister and community activist who had been working as an enforcement officer for the Newark Parking Authority, was hired in July 2014 for a $54,319 position as a Senior Community Development Specialist, a job essentially equivalent to a mayoral aide.

Despite his close ties to Baraka, however, Lewis defended his political independence by citing his longtime loyalty to public schools and opposition to charter growth throughout his seven years on the board.

"My record speaks for itself. Before I ever worked for the mayor, this was my position," he said. "When people support you they think that that person owns you, but that's false. The mayor supports us because we have our own minds. We're not politically bought by anybody."

Carter, an aviation specialist with the Army Reserves who served as a coordinator for Baraka's campaigns in the city's South Ward, was brought on board as a grants specialist in July 2014, nine months before winning a school board seat in April. She has since taken an $80,000 position as a senior human resources relations manager at the Newark Housing Authority.

She could not be reached for comment.

Advisory Board Chair Ariagna Perello, who was reelected to a second term with Baraka's backing in 2013, was hired as a customer service representative with the Newark Parking Authority in September 2014, earning $33,732.

She stressed that the authority operates independently from City Hall, and said it had no bearing on her political positions.

"I applied, like a regular person. I received a letter of acceptance. I went through the entire process," she said. "There was no kind of deal."

Baraka defended the hires in a statement, noting that Lewis and Perello were already members of the board prior to his becoming mayor, and calling each of the members "independent and strong minded individuals."

"There was never a promise of anything. I understand the cynicism that is centered around politics and the desire to make every move seem nefarious," he said. "We are going to align ourselves with folks that think similarly to us politically, naturally, and those that genuinely want the best for our children."

One other member of the board, Phil Seelinger, is currently employed by the city, earning $61,876 as a member of the Newark Fire Department's community relations division. He has held the position since 2008, according to state pension records.

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said that even in the absence of any intent to influence votes, the hiring of school board members and political allies provided ample fodder for critics.

The impending return of local control, which would gives the board new powers and allow it to leave its advisory status behind, makes each of its decisions all the more impactful, she added.

"Particularly given the tricky history with education, and it being such a key issue in the mayoral campaign, it lends to an appearance of a conflict of interest," she said. "I think that there should be the expectation of very, very serious scrutiny."

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