Newark school board candidates lay out vision for district as local control is restored

Read this article as it originally appeared in TAPintoNewark.

Newark, NJ—With the return of local control to Newark's school district after more than two decades, the selection of school board members to fill three soon-to-be open seats has been under scrutiny in preparation for the April 17 school board elections.

A recently-approved transition plan by the state education commissioner now allows for the Newark school board to move from an advisory capacity to a governing body with full voting power.

Thirteen candidates took part in a forum on Tuesday hosted by the Newark Trust for Education, where the candidates got an opportunity to strut their educational know-how before an audience of community members, parents, students and district and charter educators.

The forum, held at the Rutgers- Newark Paul Robeson Campus Center, gave the candidates a chance to answer questions culled from a six--student panel on a variety of issues including advocacy, policy and fiscal management.

Newark charter and district students collaborated on the questions, with candidates asked to present their vision for the district’s 55,000 students and how that vision will be realized.

This year’s school board candidates include Marcus Allen; Denise Cole; Che J.T. Colter; Yambeli Gomez; Khalil Hannah; Dawn Haynes; Robert House; Jameel Ibrahim; Yolanda Johnson; Johnnie Lattner; Omayra Molina; Asia Norton; and Barbara Ann Todish.

Three of the candidates will ultimately fill seats to be vacated by outgoing school board members Marques-Aquil Lewis, Dashay Carter and Crystal Fonseca.

Newark Trust for Education Executive Director Ronald Chaluisan noted the importance of the first school board election since the state takeover of the district 22 years ago.

“We’re at a really exciting time here in Newark, a time when local control has been restored," Chaluisan said. "Your vote is critical, turnout is critical.”

Candidates were asked to address a variety of issues including overall school infrastructure, meeting students’ educational and emotional needs, inclusion, school board accountability and transparency, universal enrollment system and school choice.

A 15-minute surprise protest by members of New Jersey Communities United interrupted the proceedings at the conclusion of the first round, with the approximately two dozen protestors making their way to the front of the room shouting, “the whole system is corrupt, public schools don’t have enough.”

The group handed out flyers demanding the dismantling of Newark Enrolls, an audit of the district’s finances and real estate, transparency and accountability of charter schools and a moratorium on new charter schools.

Despite the interruption, Chaluisan noted the protestors’ right to make their voices heard.

“That’s what democracy looks like,” Chaluisan said, noting issues of equity, voice and school choice. “There are lots of faces to democracy and that is one of them and we need to make sure that we listen. Forget the theatrics and listen. I will continue to work to bring students into the discussion.”

Three more rounds of questions were completed without incident.

In September, the state Board of Education voted to initiate the return of local control to the district after more than two decades under full state intervention.

The vote came after it was determined that the district had made significant progress and had satisfied the regulatory requirements of QSAC, or Quality Single Accountability Continuum, the state Department of Education's monitoring and district self-evaluation system used for public school districts.

Since the return of local control on Feb. 1, the district has been led by Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory, who was appointed by the school board in January.

Gregory will be putting forth his candidacy for the position of school superintendent, with the search process to be completed in May and a new superintendent set in place on July 1.

The superintendent search committee is headed by a committee of school board members including Kim Gaddy, Leah Owens and Josephine Garcia, along with former Superintendent of Newark Public Schools Marion Bolden, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark Nancy Cantor and Victoria Foundation Executive Officer Irene Cooper-Basch, who were jointly selected by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington.

The district has already begun implementing the recently-approved transition, which includes a detailed timeline and set of milestones to guide the district’s transition over a period of two years.

Core elements of the transition plan include Governance, Instruction and Program, and Fiscal Management, Operations, Personnel and includes key milestones and safeguards, as well as an Accountability Scorecard, which will be used to track and measure the district’s progress toward implementing the plan and a timetable for activities relating to and leading up to the withdrawal of state intervention.

The plan is closely aligned to the recommendations of the Newark Education Success Board (NESB) established jointly by Gov. Chris Christie and Mayor Baraka in 2015 to recommend a path forward to the return of local control.

The plan will expire on Jan. 31, 2020, at which time the education commissioner will notify the State Board of Education (SBOE) that the district has successfully met all benchmarks required under the plan.

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