The Cami conundrum - how Christie's Newark schools appointee could be shaping the Newark mayoral race

By Mark Bonamo | January 29th, 2014  

 

NEWARK - When Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson stood before more than 500 people packed inside Newark's First Avenue School auditorium at Tuesday's school board meeting, she probably suspected it could be a tough night.

The One Newark school reorganization plan, announced by Anderson last month, includes the expansion of charter schools, which already serve approximately 20 percent of the city's students, as well as the closure or consolidation of a dozen public schools.

Earlier this month, Anderson suspended five public school principals who spoke out against the plan, ultimately reinstating them all but reassigning two. The five principals have since filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that their constitutional rights to free speech were violated.

All Newark voters will get a chance to speak in May when they pick between South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, Jr., and Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif and former Assistant Attorney General Shavar Jeffries in the city mayoral election. And according to what some voters were saying Wednesday, Anderson, a strong supporter of charter schools, might be inadvertently tipping the political balance towards Baraka, a Newark public high school principal on leave.

"How could you say that you want education, but depreciate democracy?" Baraka said to applause from the crowd, referring to the recent suspensions and before calling for Anderson's removal. "We want full and unfettered democracy. Everybody that disagrees with the reform strategy that's going on is being painted as folks that don't want reform. We all want reform. We just don't want this reform."

Jeffries, a former school board member, Ramos and Sharif have all expressed qualified support for charter schools, but not at the expense of public schools.

Natasha Allen, a community activist, asked a question of Anderson at the expense of order in an already heated atmosphere.

"Do you not want for your brown babies what we want for ours?" Allen asked, a reference to Anderson's biracial child. "We're not playing this game!"

With that, Anderson left the stage amidst a cacophony of cat-calls and jeers and walked out, followed shortly thereafter by her staff.

Anderson was appointed to run the state-run Newark school district, the state's largest, by Christie in 2011. The governor publicly stated in September 2013 that he plans to reappoint her, and that he did not care about community criticism.

But at the end of the night, Allen amplified her comments about the "brown babies" of Newark and their place in Newark voters' minds.

"Our children are feeling doomed because schools are closing," said Allen, 42, whose daughter attends one of the schools reportedly designated to close. "There are no schools closing in the North or East Wards. It's all in the South, Central and West Wards, where it's predominantly black. I have a problem with that."

Whatever problems arise during the mayoral race, Newark resident Dawn Haynes, a mother of three whose children attend city public schools, set a combative tone, one increasingly heard by members of the community opposed to Anderson's reform plan, and looking for a mayoral candidate to support in May.

"I want to thank Cami personally for igniting the black fire that is in the Spanish and English-speaking communities, bringing us together, ready to go to war with her," Haynes, 30, said. "Give us our local control back."

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