Newark leaders 'upset' over Cerf appointment, but pledge to move forward

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for
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on July 08, 2015

NEWARK — Newark leaders today expressed disappointment at the state Board of Education's choice of Chris Cerf as the newest superintendent of the city's public schools, but pledged to work with him to help guide the district out of state control.

Less than two hours after the 6-4 vote appointing the former education commissioner to the post, School Advisory Board Chair Ariagna Perello said she was "upset", but resigned to put any preconceptions aside to foster a positive relationship with Cerf.

"We have to work with our new superintendent to drive the school district to what we want it to be," she said.

Many leaders said they were far from surprised by the board's vote, but admitted they had remained hopeful out it might reject the former education commissioner's appointment.

The final tally was close, with Cerf winning approval by a 6-4 vote. Each of the six members who voted in favor had been appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, while the four opposed had held their positions since before he took office.

"I figured it would be close. It's shocking, somewhat, but for the most part it is what it is," said Advisory Board Vice Chair Marques Aquil-Lewis.

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon, who was forcibly removed from this morning's meeting after the vote, was less conciliatory.

In a statement, he said the decision would contribute to the "ongoing destruction of public schools in Newark" and the state board would be held "fully responsible for the future actions of Mr. Cerf and the reaction of the people." He also called for federal oversight of all Cerf's actions as school chief.

State Department of Education officials have declined to provide Cerf's salary, though he has been offered a three-year contract for the superintendent position.

Officials like Perello said they were hopeful the new superintendent would open a dialogue with both the board and the community. Hespe told reporters following today's vote that Cerf had already promised to attend all School Advisory Board meetings — something departing school chief Cami Anderson had not done since January 2014.

The board's next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 18.

The decision to nominate Cerf, a proponent of charter school growth who helped appoint Anderson and oversaw the implementation of her controversial "One Newark" school reorganization plan, had met with considerable opposition since current Commissioner David Hespe announced it June 22.

That hostility came to a head on Tuesday, when more than 100 people, including Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), Municipal Council President Mildred Crump and members of the School Advisory Board joined a protest to urge the state board to reject his nomination.

Rice doubled down on his opposition following Wednesday's vote, saying he was "very disappointed" in the appointment.

"I thank those board members who took the time to research Cerf's history and the issues that we've dealt with in the city. I still do not believe that he's going to do the right thing by Newark given his past actions," he said in a statement.

Mayor Ras Baraka also appeared at the protest, where he told attendees that the state's choice of Cerf or any other superintendent was less than ideal, but nonetheless marked an important step toward the reclamation of local control over the city's schools.

City spokeswoman Marjorie Harris said the mayor had no immediate comment on the state board's decision today.

Aquil-Lewis echoed Baraka's sentiments, saying he was encouraged that Cerf's tenure might mark the end of more than two decades of state oversight.

"Its progress because we're closer than ever before. I can smell it. I can smell local control like it's like there in my face," he said. "I'm just going to be optimistic."

Perello, however, said she was having a harder time viewing the decision in a positive light.

"It's a slap in the face to us board members that we will not have the opportunity to select our own superintendent....the governor is just imposing someone on us," she said.

"I don't see progress, but at the end of the day all we care about is local control. If that's how the governor sees fit (to go about it), then it is what it is."

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