Chess vs. checkers: How one Newark school leader says he's playing his own game

By Naomi Nix | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on March 30, 2015

Superintendent Cami Anderson and board chairman Rashon Hasan confer during the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board Business Meeting last year.

 

NEWARK — A recent four-day student protest against state-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson was not lacking in city support.

The list of sit-in supporters was stacked with local heavyweights: grassroots organization New Jersey Communities United; rallying activists calling for local control, and even Mayor Ras Baraka and school advisory board members held press conferences to praise the students' efforts.

But absent from the Newark political machine publicly supporting the Newark Students Union's demonstration was one notable city leader — Newark Public Schools Advisory Board Chair Rashon Hasan.

As the school yard fight between Newark community activists and the district continues to boil, Hasan is taking a different road. While calling education a top priority, he says he has purposely stayed out of the public fight against Anderson and the district's controversial 'One Newark' reorganization.

"We can sit at the table and argue all the time, but what happens in the meantime?" he asked. "Students fail. Facilities still crumble. Our community as a result suffers."

New Start

Before Hasan, 30, became a controversial politician in the middle of the school control battle, he was a student in the city.

The son of a technical assistant for Newark Public Schools, Hasan grew up in the city's South Ward. He graduated from Newark Tech High School before earning a bachelor's degree in political science from Clark Atlanta University in 2007. He went on to earn his MBA from Florida Institute of Technology in 2011.

In 2012, Hasan made a failed bid for the school board as an independent candidate. The next year he ran again, but this time with the backing of both Baraka, and the mayor's opponent in the last election, Shavar Jeffries. He won and was elected school board chair last year.

The Newark Public Schools Advisory board is the only elected body that represents the city on education issues. But, the state has controlled the school district since 1995, and state-appointed superintendents can ignore the board's decisions and requests.

Still, the board's opinion carries political weight in Newark, and the body is often a stepping-stone to a higher office in the city.

Straddling the line

Last summer, hundreds of parents waited in a gym and auditorium without air-conditioning for hours hoping to finalize their children's' school assignments. It was the first day of the district's open enrollment center and many parents were told they could not be served and would need to return the next day.

Newark's politicians pounced, arguing that the chaos was just another sign that the One Newark reorganization plan was not working. Baraka held a press conference to once again call for the superintendent's resignation.

But days later, Hasan appeared beside Anderson when she touted the school system's new transportation plan.

"It's very difficult to have progress in a state takeover district when you don't have a relationship between the board and the superintendent," he said.


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The board chair's willingness to work with the superintendent has not equated to blind support for Anderson or her reforms. Like his colleagues on the board, he has voted against her initiatives. He even supported a measure to freeze her salary until she comes to a board meeting.

Hasan's tenure has been marked by some significant changes in the school board structure. The state is transitioning control of the district's fiscal operations back to the advisory board.

The board has started implementing a number of new initiatives aimed at improving the district's QSAC scores, the grading system the state uses when deciding when to take over a school district. It reorganized its committee structure to match the areas measured by the QSAC. And, the board released a detailed report this month evaluating the district's and Anderson's performance.

But, the chair argues that more should be done. He said that further professionalizing the board and its meetings could help move the needle on a goal Newarkers' sought long before Anderson's arrival: local control of the school district.

"We haven't been playing the same game that the state has been playing," he said

"They have been playing chess and we've been playing checkers."

President and CEO of Newark Trust for Education Ross Danis said that the state's decision to return fiscal control to Newark and the changes to the board's operations are a step in the right direction.

"It might reassure people in Trenton when you give control back that the people you are giving it back to have systems in place," he said.

The Backlash

The thin line Hasan has been walking, however, has not been without pitfalls. He has faced political backlash from people both on and off the board. Some critics argue that he has been orchestrating a board reorganization by himself; while others wish he would use his position as chair to take a bigger role in the public fight against Anderson's reforms.

Board member Marques Aquil Lewis said in an interview he would be uncomfortable working with the superintendent in the same way Hasan has.

"I can't serve two masters. I can't say I love God and then negotiate with the devil," said Lewis, who is up for reelection.

Newarkers must force the state to return governance of the school system through political pressure, political insiders have argued.

"In the absence of a board of education that has formal authority I think people feel that the only thing that can make a difference is our collective voice," said Danis.

Newark parent Lou Jones said at a recent board meeting that others have tried Hasan's strategy and come up short.

"Shavar played the game," he said referring to former Newark Public Schools Advisory board chair and mayoral candidate Shavar Jeffries. "At the end of the day we ended up in the same place fighting for local control."

But, Hasan argues his open relationship with district officials has yielded positive results for students' education.

Hasan said he was able to coordinate with district officials to help the school system apply for and win a $40,000 grant from Verizon, where he works as an operations manager, for STEM programming at two schools.

He also lobbied the superintendent to keep Hawthorne Avenue School open after the district announced it was one of four schools that were going to become charter schools, he said. The school district announced it would keep the South Ward school open in July of 2014, after months of protest from activists and parents.

But he may not have much more time as chair of the board. After the school board election in April, the board will have a reorganization meeting to vote for a new chair and vice chair.

Until then, Hasan said he staying on his course.

"I think the way you represent the community is to build up this board so that they can be proud of the work they do and say 'you know what they represented us in all facets,'" he said.

"'They didn't go and argue and fight and not have a seat at the table to impact decisions that are being made that would impact our children.'"

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