NJ lawmakers say meeting with Newark superintendent was overdue

By Naomi Nix | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on January 06, 2015

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In this 2014 file photo, Superintendent Cami Anderson told a group of reporters at The Newark Club that she plans to continue the school district's controversial One Newark plan

 

TRENTON — After four hours of grilling Newark schools superintendent Cami Anderson on the district's controversial reform plan lawmakers say there is more work to do repair a fractured relationship between the district and the legislature.

The joint committee on public schools questioned the embattled superintendent and state education commissioner David Hespe on issues of policy and personality in Trenton today following months of what lawmakers said were multiple requests for her appearance.

"It was long overdue and that was reflected in the frustration and the emotion and the passion of the legislators," Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, who co-chairs the committee, said after the meeting.

"What you heard today was a lot of pent up interest, anger (and) frustration. We need to know what is going on."

Anderson said the meeting with state legislators was a good opportunity to talk about serious issues facing the district.

But in what was often a heated exchange, lawmakers heavily criticized the One Newark plan she implemented in September, which includes relocating school communities, changing school leadership, and expanding charter schools.

The plan also started a city-wide universal enrollment system in which parents entered a lottery to be placed in their desired schools. Early in the meeting, Newark community activist Donna Jackson stormed out of the meeting shouting "she's lying" several times.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo pressed Anderson to communicate why so many parents went to public meetings angry about their assigned school and the direction of the district if the school system is improving.

“For every person who communicates their frustration is someone who hugs me and says thank you,” Anderson responded.

Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin said the reforms were hurting families who were no longer allowed to send their kids to the school closest to them and could not afford to transport further distances.

“I have parents who are not sending their kids to school right now,” she said.

Anderson responded by saying there are a limited number of quality schools in the district and families have always been disappointed, particularly in the Ironbound section of the city.

“People misinterpret that universal enrollment created this problem,” she said.

It wasn't all bad for the superintendent. Senator Samuel Thompson said improving Newark's school district was a tall order and praised her for taking bold steps to get the district on the right track.

“I commend you on the steps you have taken," the Republican senator said.

But even Thompson joined in with his colleagues in criticizing Anderson for not engaging with local state leaders and community residents enough.

“I think you do need a thicker skin,” he said.

Indeed, the meeting was as much a critique of Anderson's reforms as it was a critique of her personally.

"Never in my entire life experience has a leader of a publicly-funded institution adopted an attitude that they do not have to engage with the people that they serve," said Assemblyman Sheila Oliver(D-34th).

“You make the assumption that you are the sharpest tool in the shed.”

Todays' meeting between Anderson and lawmakers was just the latest development in a long saga over the superintendent's leadership.

For months activists and politicians have been calling for a complete overhaul of the district's reforms and the ouster of Anderson, saying the plans hurt local families and the superintendent has not engaged with the community.

Legislators said today Anderson has even snubbed them by not answering their questions or appearing before the committee. The committee said it has sent at least 10 invitations requesting her presence since February of 2014.

In the coming days, the lawmakers said they will be sending written questions for the school district to answer. And State Sen Ron Rice, who co-chairs the committee, said the committee plans to hold another public hearing for city residents to talk about the reforms.

"This is not over," Caputo said after the meeting. "It's a shame it had to come to this."

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