National News

Newark Schools Chief Resigns Early to Ease Transition to Local Control

Posted December 26, 2017 9:48 p.m. EST
Updated December 26, 2017 9:54 p.m. EST

The Newark, New Jersey, public schools superintendent, Christopher D. Cerf, has submitted his resignation months ahead of schedule, the latest move in a series of steps designed to return New Jersey’s largest school district to local control more than two decades after the state seized oversight.

Cerf’s resignation, tendered last week, is effective Feb. 1, 2018. He will be replaced on an interim basis by the deputy superintendent, A. Robert Gregory, while a national search is conducted for a new leader to take over the district on July 1.

Mayor Ras J. Baraka of Newark said Cerf’s resignation, five months before his contract expires June 30, was a significant step that demonstrated that the state-appointed superintendent wants the transition to local control to move quickly and comfortably.

“I’m glad he’s resigning because it changes the conversation. We could never talk about the issues that affected the school district because it was always about him. He’d become a distraction,” Baraka, a former educator in the district, said in an interview. “Once he leaves, the onus is on us to deliver what we laid out for our city.”

Cerf was on vacation and unavailable for comment, a district spokeswoman said Tuesday. In a Dec. 21 districtwide email, Cerf said, “Now is the time to focus on how we can all work together to ensure an orderly transition proceeds.” The district has been under state control since 1995.

The two-year transition plan was presented to the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board last week.

In his email, Cerf said selecting a permanent superintendent while ensuring the education of Newark’s children should occur “in an environment of stability and unity of purpose.”

Cerf’s email continued: “I believe that the right path to achieve that goal is for me to step down and for the board to select an interim superintendent to lead the district pending the appointment of a permanent successor.”

Gregory, the interim superintendent, has been an educator in the Newark school system for more than 20 years, starting just after the state took control.

Cerf, the former state education commissioner, was chosen by Gov. Chris Christie to take control of the district in 2015 after the tumultuous tenure of Cami Anderson, whom Cerf helped recruit and oversaw. Anderson, a longtime friend and adviser to Sen. Cory A. Booker when Booker was still mayor of Newark, stirred controversy and protests with her reorganization plan called One Newark, which created a universal enrollment system to replace neighborhood schools.

A lottery system that assigned children to traditional public schools as well as charter schools led to school closings and the firings of teachers and principals.

Baraka, who openly feuded with Anderson, said there was tremendous anxiety upon Cerf’s arrival because many blamed him for Anderson’s tenure. Baraka did not fight Cerf’s appointment because he said he viewed it as a step toward facilitating local control.

“People said I should be yelling and screaming, that I was being tricked, and that I was a fool for believing local control would return. They said I was naive, but they were absolutely wrong,” Baraka said. “I was willing to endure whatever to get us on a path to local control.”

Baraka said Cerf was willing to “have open and honest dialogue” about issues the city was facing. “Publicly and privately, he and I could disagree,” Baraka said, but that did not change the fact that they shared “the overarching goal to improve student achievement.”

Marques-Aquil Lewis, president of the Newark advisory school board, said that he thought Cerf was too focused on charter schools, but gave him credit for helping Newark transition to local control.

“When he came, he gave the board his word that he was going to help get us to local control,” Lewis said. “He was our quarterback and he got us the touchdown that we needed.”

The Newark public school system serves 55,000 students and has a budget of almost $1 billion. Although the district’s graduation and teacher-retention rates are on the rise, Baraka said state oversight had not provided any “cataclysmic improvements.” Now it’s up to local leaders to guide the district.

“You need a superintendent who is ambitious but whose ambitions are not big enough to not consider everybody,” Baraka said.

Gregory said he intends to apply for the permanent position with a goal of bringing all aspects of Newark’s community to the table to help “regain the trust” of parents, teachers and students.

“We are trying to undo years of systemic failures. To do that you have to have systemic solutions,” said Gregory. “I have no intention of just keeping the seat warm.”