Baraka joins anti-Cerf protest, calls critics of school control deal 'crackpots'

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on July 07, 2015

Jeremiah Akoto, a Newark Public School student speaks at a rally to voice opposition to the nomination of former state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to become superintendent of the Newark school district. Rally held on City Hall steps in Newark.

 

NEWARK — Newark Mayor Ras Baraka fired back at critics of a deal to transition the city's schools back to local control on Tuesday, saying it was just one part of a journey two decades in the making.

Speaking before about 100 people rallying on the steps of City Hall to protest the potential appointment of former state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf as the city's new superintendent of schools, Baraka dismissed those who viewed his cooperation with Gov. Chris Christie with suspicion as "crackpots."

"No matter what people tell you, no matter what nonsense you hear — that Baraka got this, he got that — we are fighting for local control of an elected school board," he said.

On June 26, Baraka and Christie issued a joint statement announcing the creation of the Newark Educational Success Board, a 9-member body tasked with developing a clear path to hand control of the schools back to the city after more than 20 years.

The two made for unlikely allies, having been strongly at odds on the issue in the past. Last week, the mayor told NJ Spotlight that he reached an agreement to allow Christie to pick the city's next superintendent, who would assist in the transition.

Unlike other speakers at the rally, Baraka steered clear of any direct criticism of Cerf, instead stressing the value of what he called a "historic moment" in the struggle to be free the school district from the state's grasp.

"We've been under state control under Democratic and Republican governors. We've been under state control for all of this time, all of the fight and the struggle we've done, we've been under state control. We've never had a discussion, never in the city of Newark, about local control. We've never been at this point of transition," he said.

"We have an opportunity here, and we need to seize it."

Earlier speakers, including state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), Municipal Council President Mildred Crump and members of the city's School Advisory Board, all urged the state Board of Education not to accept the Education Department's nomination of Cerf as the replacement for departing school chief Cami Anderson.

The board is scheduled to vote on the recommendation on Wednesday.

Rice, who helped block Cerf's initial appointment as Education Commissioner for 18 months over 2010 and 2011, said he had lobbied the board to keep the city's best interests in mind as they prepared to vote.

"They should concern themselves with the many unanswered questions regarding (Cerf's) veracity, integrity and business relationships prior to becoming commissioner and during his tenure as commissioner," he said. "Let me assure you that a leopard does not change his spots."

Rice has been among the state legislature's fiercest critics of the state's handling of local schools, alleging that Christie had fostered a "plantation mentality" and largely used the district as a cash cow for Cerf and other friends and business associates. He cited city schools' dealings with Amplify Education Inc., at which Cerf later served as CEO, and Cerf's support of charter schools and the highly controversial "One Newark" reorganization plan.

"His interests have always been how he can get control of the federal and state revenue provided to the urban public schools and local urban governments, to make his business friends and supporters wealthy by the award of contracts and high-paying jobs for them during his tenure as governor," Rice said.

Other speakers were more straightforward, saying the district had simply earned the right to choose its own leader and elect its own school board.

"The students are tired of being played as pawns," said Newark Student Union President Jose Leonardo. "We are not puppets."

Baraka agreed, but attempted to assure those in attendance that the tenure of Cerf or any superintendent hand-picked by the state would merely be another step toward attaining the independence they were seeking.

"We want it today. If we can get it tomorrow then we should get it tomorrow. If we can get it a week from now we should get it a week from now. But never lose sight of what we're fighting for," he said.

"We're fighting for total and complete freedom. Total and complete - not a master that we like."

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