In Newark public schools election, Newarkers have chance to let their voice be heard | Opinion

By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
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on April 13, 2015

By Ross Danis

The Mayor of Newark does not support the superintendent of schools. The majority of the Newark Public School Advisory Board does not support her either, and her support is weak among members of the New Jersey State Department of Education. The State District Superintendent of the Newark Public Schools in question? Marion Bolden. The year? It was 2003, the same year that the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board election drew more voters than ever before or since - over 14,000.

Fast forward to 2015. Newark has electrified the national conversation about equity and excellence in education. Good or bad, for or against, more change has taken place during the first three and a half years of State District Superintendent Cami Anderson's tenure than in all of the years since the Newark Public Schools were taken over by the state due to gross mismanagement in 1995.

Now Newark's registered voters will go to the polls on April 21 to decide who will fill three open seats on the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board of Education. Given what's at stake and considering the sometimes fevered advocacy by a range of stakeholders - including some from outside Newark and many without children attending Newark schools, it's exciting to anticipate voters flocking to the polls by the thousands later this month. If Marion Bolden could generate record turnout in 2003, why shouldn't Cami Anderson shatter that record in 2015?

Well, as critical as education issues are in Newark, these elections unfortunately have historically generated low voter participation. "Even when there's so much attention being directed around public education ... you can't get more than 10,000 people to show up to vote," lamented the late Clement A. Price, an historian and Rutgers professor. And we can all agree that, with more than 152,000 registered voters in New Jersey's largest city, a 7 percent voter turnout is far too low.

Those who follow Newark's education reform efforts already know what has captivated the public's attention and may drive voters to the polls this year: One Newark, universal enrollment, school closures, consolidations, charter schools, merit pay and a superintendent who, literally and figuratively, just won't quit.

Well, as critical as education issues are in Newark, these elections unfortunately have historically generated low voter participation. "Even when there's so much attention being directed around public education ... you can't get more than 10,000 people to show up to vote," lamented the late Clement A. Price, an historian and Rutgers professor. And we can all agree that, with more than 152,000 registered voters in New Jersey's largest city, a 7 percent voter turnout is far too low.

Those who follow Newark's education reform efforts already know what has captivated the public's attention and may drive voters to the polls this year: One Newark, universal enrollment, school closures, consolidations, charter schools, merit pay and a superintendent who, literally and figuratively, just won't quit.

But what drove record voter turnout in 2003? Then Mayor Sharpe James wanted Bolden out. The NJSDOE did not want to reappoint her to a second three-year term. After a raucous and chaotic meeting in February of that year, the Newark School Advisory Board voted 5-4 to oust Bolden and replace her with David Snead, a former superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools and then-superintendent of the Waterbury Public Schools in Connecticut.

New Jersey Education Commissioner William Librera, present at the meeting, stated that a 5-4 vote was not good for anyone - not Bolden or Snead. He suggested that the board and the NJSDOE wait until after the upcoming school advisory board election to make a decision. The announcement galvanized support from unlikely allies and united Newarkers, who came out in droves to endorse one of their own. The community spoke. Bolden was reappointed.

What makes this story so fascinating is not the community response. It is not uncommon for Newarkers to stand united. What is unusual is that the state ceded power to the people, even though Newark was and remains a state controlled district. Librera could have accepted the vote not to renew Bolden's contract at the pre-election board meeting. He could have overturned the vote to reappoint her after the election. He didn't. He listened and supported the community in its democratic decision.

Today's names, issues and political winds may have changed, but that which is at stake - namely our children and their future - has not. If the will of the community has shifted, only Newark's voters can say by how much. Will they stay home and leave critical decisions about Newark's schoolchildren to others? Or will they come out to the polls in inspired numbers and signal a new day?

Our representative democracy isn't perfect. Politicians and policymakers sometimes don't pay enough attention to the voice of the people. But our democracy empowers those who embrace their voting rights and lets them guide their community's destiny. So let's not settle for complaining about outcomes after the fact; let's instead raise our voices at the polls on April 21 and move Newark toward a better tomorrow.

Ross Danis is president and CEO of the Newark Trust for Education. The Newark Trust will host its Annual Candidate Forum between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on April 14. For details visit: www.newarktrust.org.

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