Charter backers, 'machine politics' make mark on Newark school board vote

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on April 20, 2016

 

NEWARK — Tuesday's sweep of the city's school board elections by a so-called "Unity" slate is being hailed as both a victory against the often hostile rhetoric surrounding education in Newark and a sign of a new wrinkle in local politics.

The trio of Octavio "Tave" Padilla, Kim Gaddy and Leah Owens ran away with the annual contest — collectively taking more than 62 percent of the total vote.

The resounding victory came despite the group's divergent views on school choice - both Gaddy and Padilla generally support the expansion of charter schools, while Owens has advocated for a moratorium on their growth — as well as their unlikely coalition of political backers.

Mayor Ras Baraka backed Owens, Padilla represented a contingent of North Ward power players headlined by Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr.

The biggest impact, however, may have come from charter-backing groups such as the Parent Coalition for Excellent Education (PC2E), a newly formed organization which hand-picked Gaddy for the slate helped register new voters in hopes of carving out a place on the board for reform-minded members.

Gaddy was the leading vote getter of all 12 candidates with 5,804, with Padilla trailing her by just four votes. Owens easily took the final of the three available seats with 4,945.

"I think it was really a coming out party for the collective group, or for the charter community to say we're here, we're not really going anywhere and we want a piece of the pie," said Lavar Young, Newark City Director for the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Newark also saw unusually high turnout for the spring election. A total of 26,578 residents cast votes on Tuesday, easily dwarfing the 17,100 from 2015 and more than doubling participation from as recently as 2013.

Officials chalked much of that up to the added layer of organization around the campaign, but also to the looming prospect that the board will shed its advisory status when governing power is finally returned to the district after more than two decades.

"This is a critical time in Newark Public Schools history," said Ramos. "The goal in the beginning was not to put three candidates that were clones as far as perspective, but candidates that support quality public schools."

"It's really a question of when," said Richmond Rabinovitz, Acting CEO of the Newark Trust for Education, which held a candidate forum and created a website with information on the election.

"We certainly hope that helps people engage."

While a number of new dynamics reared their head during the campaign, the final tally also helped reinforce an age-old truism of local politics, as candidates without major fundraising operations, high-profile endorsements and well-oiled ground game of the "Unity" slate failed to pose a significant challenge at the polls.

"I think it's just the power of machine politics, basically. You can't underestimate politics in Newark," said Young. "I think the power of three different apparatuses is really why you saw the big turnout."

After the success of an alliance between old political rivals, however, some believe many voters may have simply been motivated by the promise of potentially leaving years of grown weary of public bickering over the future of the city's schools behind.

"I think its confirmation that what parents and Newark communities want is better education options across the city," said Mashea Ashton, CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund. "They are tired of the politics, the business as usual, the us versus them."

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