The state-appointed Newark Schools Superintendent, Cami Anderson, is no longer attending the monthly school board meetings that draw hundreds of parents and community members.
The meetings are famously contentious.
And Anderson says there is no opportunity to engage the public at the meetings that regularly break out in chants calling for her to resign.
“I’m all for vigorous debate and dialogue and disagreement because it is my belief that big changes happen when people are willing to engage in tough conversations,” Anderson said. “But they have to be productive and focused on kids.”
The superintendent’s plans for the district have been controversial. She has promoted privately-run charter schools, promised to close failing schools and consolidate others. Earlier this month, she asked the state for permission to bypass teacher tenure rules for future layoffs.
At a January meeting, a Newark parent, Natasha Allen, derided the superintendent about her biracial child during the public comments.
“Do you not want for our brown babies what you want for your own brown baby?” Allen asked the superintendent.
Anderson’s face turned red. She shook her head repeatedly saying, “Not my family.” She gathered her papers and walked off the stage.
Anderson says she is no longer relying on those meetings to communicate with the public. Instead, the district will videotape its monthly update and post it online and on Newark’s cable network.
“This is something that superintendents just don’t do,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the chair of the School Advisory Board. “Superintendents attend school board meetings.”
The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, agrees. She wrote a letter to Gov. Chris Christie criticizing the superintendent and making the case to return local control to Newark.
"I have never seen a superintendent simply say, 'I am not talking to the community,'” Weingarten told WNYC. The district has been run by the state since 1994.
“Her boss is not the community,” Weingarten said. “Her boss is the Governor of the state of New Jersey. That’s the problem.”
In a district-run school system, the superintendent reports to school board members who are elected by residents.
In Newark, Gov. Christie appointed the superintendent and the school board has only an advisory role. The frustration is that parents don’t have much sway over how their schools are run or what Cami Anderson does.
“That’s the arrogance,” said Baskerville-Richardson, the board chair. “Saying you care about children, but you don’t respect the parents of those children enough to let them have any input into plans that will change the school they go to, that’s the arrogance.”
The district says it has held more than a hundred other community meetings in the month of February, but Baskerville-Richardson says those meetings are by invitation only.
The district argues that the few hundred parents who attend the monthly board meetings are not representative of the parents and guardians of the 40,000 students in the district.
Although Baskerville-Richardson says she wants Anderson at the meetings, she acknowledged the superintendent’s absence may actually be more productive.
“What ended up happening is that there was a much more orderly, functional meeting than when the superintendent is there,” Baskerville-Richardson said.