Nearly 100 citizens gathered to voice opinions about proposed teacher layoffs and other issues at Newark, N.J.’s, monthly School Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday night, but district superintendent Cami Anderson was nowhere in sight.
And don't look for Anderson at future meetings, where parents and community members ostensibly will have more opportunities to discuss pressing school issues.
Just hours before the latest School Advisory Board meeting, the school district issued a letter explaining that Anderson and other district leaders will no longer attend because the forums are "no longer focused on achieving educational outcomes for children.” The letter called the meetings dysfunctional, and said Anderson and other district officials will rejoin them if the School Advisory Board commits to “a space conducive to open dialogue within the community.”
Anderson was appointed superintendent of the state-run school system in 2011 by Gov. Chris Christie (R). Unlike most local school boards, which decide policy and direct the superintendent, Newark's board, because of the district's takeover by the state, is advisory.
Since Anderson's appointment, she has enacted several polarizing initiatives, and recently announced the “One Newark” plan -– which includes an expansion of charter schools and a universal enrollment system. Recent news that Anderson applied for a state waiver that would allow her to fire thousands of teachers based on classroom effectiveness instead of seniority also stirred some community members.
Recent meetings of the elected School Advisory Board have become heated, with community members and parents directing vitriol at the superintendent. In January, Anderson walked out of a meeting after a community member referred to her biracial child, asking, “Do you not want for our brown babies what you want for your brown baby?”
Anderson, who is white, alluded to the verbal attacks in a Tuesday press release:
“I am an educator who believes that we must all serve as models for our students. No one wins when personal attacks are allowed to seep into discussion. There must be a way where we can have rigorous debates and disagreement -- even vociferously -- but remain respectful and focused on business.”
Ruben Roberts, the school district executive director for community affairs and engagement, noted in the press release that the district has hosted nearly 100 community meetings in recent months and will continue to do so. On Wednesday, the district released a video update of district news that it usually would present at a School Advisory Board meeting.
Antoinette Bakersville-Richardson, chair of the advisory board, said she takes issue with Anderson’s decision not to attend the meetings. She noted that Tuesday’s meeting, without Anderson, was notably calmer than previous ones.
“Cami Anderson’s decision that neither her or her staff would not attend any more school board meetings is basically a slap in the face not only to the board, but to the parents and larger community,” Bakersville-Richardson told The Huffington Post by phone. “That means she won't be there to hear the community speak, her staff will not be there to answer pertinent questions. … This is part of the responsibility of the superintendent.”
Bakersville-Richardson said she thought Anderson’s walkout at the January meeting was premeditated and was not based on offense to the “brown babies” comment.
“Based on the precision with which you and senior staff abandoned the meeting, it was obvious that you planned to walk out of the meeting and that you simply chose the first opportune moment to do so,” Bakersville-Richardson previously wrote in the letter to the district.
In response to Bakersville-Richardson’s accusation, Matthew Frankel, the school district executive director of communications, told HuffPost in an email, “such a characterization is disgusting.”