Cerf narrowly wins approval to become Newark schools chief

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Former New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, seen in this file photo, has been approved as the next superintendent of Newark Public Schools. (Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger)

By Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com 
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TRENTON — Christopher Cerf, a former New Jersey education commissioner and vocal supporter of Cami Anderson, will be the new state-appointed superintendent of Newark Public Schools.

Cerf, 60, of Montclair, was approved by the state Board of Education in a 6-4 vote on Wednesday, the same day Anderson's tenure as Newark's school chief officially came to a close. 

His arrival — if a deal brokered by Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka holds up — could mark the beginning of the end of two decades of state control over New Jersey's largest public school district.  

Cerf, a former history teacher, White House lawyer and CEO of a global technology company, takes the helm in Newark with a clear directive from the state: Guide the school district back to local control. 

"The focus is to return Newark to local control," Board President Mark Biedron said. "I believe that Chris Cerf is the best man to do that."

But board members Arcelio Aponte, Edithe Fulton, Dorothy Strickland and Ronald Butcher voted against the nomination. None were originally to the board appointed by Christie.

All four said they want to see Newark's schools return to local control. However, they said don't believe Cerf is the right fit for the job.

"I just think that it's a blow to the people of Newark who expect to have somebody who really cares about them," Fulton said.

Though she voted against Cerf, Strickland said she would do anything she could to help him achieve success

"His success is going to be the success of Newark," she said 

As superintendent, Cerf will hold one of nine seats on the newly formed Newark Educational Success Board, a panel of community members and educational experts. The board, created by Christie and Baraka, is charged with developing a specific pathway with appropriate timelines and benchmarks for ending the state takeover. 

But Cerf's appointment, like his tenure as education commissioner from 2011 to 2014, has already sparked controversy. Some Newark residents protested his potential appointment Tuesday on the steps of city hall. 

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 Education Commissioner David Hespe's nomination of Cerf.

The Newark school advisory board recommended its own candidate, current Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon.

Based on his previous record in New Jersey, Cerf appears to share a similar philosophy on school reform as Anderson, who became increasingly disliked by some teachers, community members and local politicians during her four-year tenure. 

A company Cerf helped found months before he became education commissioner in 2011 was hired by then-Mayor Cory Booker to draft a school reorganization plan, which ultimately served as a forerunner to Anderson's controversial One Newark reform. 

Cerf once described Anderson as "an extremely talented, very powerful individual with an indomitable spirit, who passionately and deeply believes in the children of Newark."

A longtime supporter of charter schools, Cerf was appointed to the board of directors of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in April. He resigned from the lobbying group's board on June 22, the day Anderson's departure was announced.  

Some opponents have said they are skeptical of Cerf's business connections. He worked for education companies in the private sector both before and after his stint and eduction commissioner. 

Cerf, who did not attend Wednesday's meeting, previously denied any conflict of interest between his government and business jobs. 

Baraka said Tuesday he supports Cerf's appointment because it marks a step toward local control. The mayor said those who are suspicious of his deal with Christie are "crackpots."

Adam Clark may be reached at adam_clark@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @realAdamClarkFind NJ.com on Facebook. 

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