Room at the Top: NJ's Urban School Districts Search for Supers

May 18, 2012

The Camden school board's move this week to launch a search for a new superintendent adds to the growing list of urban supers in flux in New Jersey where the Christie administration could play a prominent role in filling most, if not all, of them.

Camden joins Jersey City and Trenton in the process of replacing their superintendents, while Paterson and Perth Amboy are almost equally uncertain about their future leadership.

Paterson superintendent Donnie Evans is working under a one-year contract with the state, while Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Caffrey is in open warfare with her board.

One thing they all have in common is a direct or indirect role for the Christie administration namely Chris Cerf, the acting education commissioner to exert its influence in what happens next.

For Paterson and to a degree Jersey City, the state continues to hold at least partial control of the district. Meanwhile, Perth Amboy's fight is before Cerf as a legal appeal, and Trenton and Camden are districts where the state has considerable influence with the state monitors in place.

If nothing else, all of those contracts will likely need the state's approval if they exceed the superintendent salary caps, almost a certainly given the size of the districts.

Cerf in an interview yesterday acknowledged that these are significant decisions for the districts and, if necessary, the acting commissioner to make in the coming months. He stressed that was not to say he will impose his views; in some cases, he said, the search processes were proceeding well on their own.

"The bottom line is what are we going to do about Newark, Paterson, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Camden, and Trenton," he said. "While we do high-level thinking about things like teacher effectiveness or Common Core [curriculum], the question is what exactly will we do tomorrow about those districts."

He immediately cited the administration's obvious and direct role in picking superintendent Cami Anderson in Newark, now a year on the job and seeking wide changes in the state's largest district, including a new teacher accountability system and reconfiguration of schools.

Cerf's comments did not come without some warnings from critics, one of whom said she hopes the administration will allow the local process to take its course.

"The residents of Camden and Newark and Paterson and Jersey City deserve the right to democratically control their public schools, just like the residents of every other New Jersey community," said Julia Sass Rubin, a leading organizer with Save Our Schools NJ, a grass-roots, pro-public schools group. "

"You cannot improve a school system by ignoring the wishes of the people whose children attend those public schools," she said.

In other districts where the state has direct control, such as Paterson, Cerf said he feels Evans is making headway. The commissioner has put him on a short leash, only granting him a one-year extension of his contract and setting aggressive performance incentives in that contract, including significant achievement gains.

"I am extremely encouraged by Dr. Evans work over the last year, with the plan he's developed and the support and collaboration he has had with the board," Cerf said.

In Jersey City, the process is underway to replace Charles Epps, the longtime superintendent who was effectively removed by the board with the state's acquiescence.

Under state law, the local board technically regained governance power several years ago, and will have significant say in the selection. It interviewed six candidates for the position last weekend, including interim superintendent Franklin Walker.

Cerf yesterday wouldn't not speak to his role in the process in Jersey City, but he said it appeared to be moving well. "It looks like they have some very strong candidates," he said.

The other districts are more uncertain, with Cerf reviewing any final contracts that come in above the $175,000 salary cap, as they all will.

In Trenton, it looks as if a new superintendent has been chosen. The board this week announced the selection of Francisco Duran, an assistant superintendent in Philadelphia.

But Cerf did not hide his particular interest in Camden, where the board this week approved a buyout of former superintendent Bessie Lefra Young and the start of a national search for a replacement.

"We certainly will be as helpful as we can be in moving along that process," Cerf said. "I would like to think the board will conduct a national search and will select an extraordinary and transformative leader. Anything short of that won't get the job done."