Newark community is skeptical of state's school 'working group'

By Peggy McGlone | The Star-Ledger
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on July 13, 2014

Pastor Gennie Holt prays for Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson's departure at a Newark City Hall on June 30. When state officials renewed Anderson's contract, they also created a community group to improve communication with the state-run district and city residents.


NEWARK — Critics of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson and her school reorganization plan have complained for months that their voices haven’t been heard, so Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe’s call for a “working group” of community leaders should have been welcome news.

But instead of cheering, many in the state’s largest city remain skeptical.

“Anyone who decides to go on that committee is going to be (seen as) a traitor,” Hawthorne Avenue School parent teacher organization president Grace Sergio said. “Do you think anyone is going to want to be part of that group?”

Sergio’s distrust is echoed across the city. At a recent public rally, Pastor Mamie Bridgeforth of the Faith Christian Center Church called the group “bogus” and said the ministers who had sought help from Hespe had been played.

Len Pugliese, executive director of the City Association of Supervisors and Administrators, the union representing principals and other chief school administrators, called the group a sham.

“It’s a smokescreen. I believe the state’s plan is to use the committee to silence the aggressive and unified outcry that Anderson must go,” Pugliese said. “The discussion now has become ‘should we sit on the committee?’ ”

Hespe’s working group was announced at the same time as Anderson’s contract renewal, a three-year deal worth $251,5000 that must be renewed annually. Many view the group as an olive branch to the many critics who sought Anderson’s ouster.

“If she’s here to stay and we have to deal with her, then she has to deal with us,” Newark Parents Union president Frank Adao said.

Adao said no one from Trenton or the Newark schools has reached out to his group to participate. And if an invitation came, he’s not sure he’d agree.

“How can I say yes? I don’t trust her,” Adao said. “We want to start building and mending relationships, but it’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Rashon Hasan, chairman of the Newark School Advisory Board, is reserving judgment on the concept until he has more information. But he agrees that it will be difficult.

“We’re at the point there’s so much mistrust. A call for collaboration is a hard pill for anyone to swallow,” Hasan said. “Everybody has been working hard to move the district forward, but people have been beaten down.

They’ll have to prove themselves to this community first.”

Hasan said the city’s school board is a community working group, and he questioned the authority of the committee.

“We are the governing body, so the role of this group wouldn’t be to make any decisions. Everything rests with the Board of Education,” he said. The group — to be led by Hespe, Anderson and Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks — was supposed to be formed immediately to review and fix Anderson’s controversial One Newark plan. But no members have been announced and no meeting date set.

“We are still working to establish the working group, which will include a broad representation of community stakeholders — all of whom live in Newark, work in Newark, or are connected with Newark,” Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple said.

Community members said it is too late for the group to make any significant changes to the reorganization, which will consolidate and relocate more than one-quarter of the city’s schools. Yaple said the focus of the group will be broader than One Newark. “Ultimately, improved communications and collaboration can only benefit the community — and that’s our goal,” he said.

Hasan, too, said there is still work to be done.

“It has been communicated that this is a multi-phase plan and this is the early phase,” he said. “So if it’s a long-term plan, then I don’t think it’s too late.”

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