Newark mayoral candidates spar in education forum

By David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger 

Newark Mayoral Candidates left to right: Ras Baraka, Anibal Ramos, Jr., Darrin Sharif and Shavar Jeffries participate in an education debate at Science Park High School. (Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger)

NEWARK — It was touted as a civil exchange of ideas over education, but it didn’t take long for Newark mayoral candidates to get into a political brawl that ranged from the budget to taxes to police.

The crowd of roughly 400 residents, parents, teachers and students made their presence known during the two-hour forum, cheering for their candidates and often booing those they did not support in the May 2014 election.

South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka and Shavar Jeffries shared the stage with North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos and Central Ward Councilman Darrin Sharif but Jeffries and Baraka directed most of their attention towards each other in the two-hour exchange at Science Park High School.

Jeffries started, hitting Baraka over his performance as principal of Central High School.

“It is one of the worst performing high schools in the United States of America,” Jeffries said.

“It’s tough being the frontrunner because you get all the attacks,” Baraka responded. “Central was at the bottom of the list when I became principal, but it’s not at the bottom anymore.”

Moderator Marcia Brown, Rutgers-Newark’s Vice Chancellor for Student and Community Affairs, warned the candidates not to engage in personal attacks.

Baraka apologized, but added, “I got hit. I’m from Newark so I had to hit back.”

The debate, hosted by the Newark Trust for Education featured questions from residents, parents, students and organizers. The big issues centered around local control of schools, student safety, parent empowerment, and facility improvement of the district which serves roughly 38,000 students.

Newark schools have been under state control since 1995 and every candidate agreed they wanted a return to local control, but not everyone agreed on what that should look like.

“I look forward to the day when Newark has self-determination,” Ramos said advocating for a hybrid board of education with members appointed by the governor, the mayor and elected by residents.

Baraka called that idea “ridiculous” saying the whole board should be elected by residents.

“It’s hypocritical for us to say we should have local control and say we should have a hybrid,” Baraka said.

Sharif said that until Newark can guarantee the integrity of the board and the school system, Newark would languish under state control.

“Let’s be real, the state took the schools from us for very specific reasons,” he said. Indeed, the state cited a combination of corruption along with poor performance in their original decision to take over Newark’s schools..

Candidates all agreed the next mayor had to fight for funding to renovate old facilities and build new ones — funding they said was promised under former Gov. Jon Corzine and rolled back under Gov. Chris Christie.

“Every student in our city deserves a school as good as the one we’re in tonight,” Ramos said. Science Park is a new facility.

When the forum turned to the question of student safety, things got heated again. Jeffries used the opportunity to chide the three councilmembers who voted to raise taxes three years in a row and in 2010 voted to lay off roughly 170 cops, while not cutting their own staffs or salaries.

“The South Ward in particular is an absolute disaster right now,” Jeffries said, singling out Baraka. “Your fruit speaks louder than your words.”

Baraka agreed but said addressing rampant poverty, and not necessarily hiring more police, was the answer.

“Anybody here can point to the violence in the city,” he said.

Sharif defended the layoffs saying that without the pain of 2010 the city would have had to raise taxes by 32 percent.

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