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Promising a ‘heavy hand’ in education, Baraka hints at plans to influence school policy

When the state ended its 22-year takeover of the Newark school system in February, it was a historic moment for the city — and a major victory for Mayor Ras Baraka, who spent years crusading against the takeover.

Now, with the elected school board back in control of Newark’s schools and Baraka seeking a second term, the big question for him on education is: What next?

“We are going to try to have as heavy a hand as possible in the school district by fostering collaboration,” Baraka told Chalkbeat. “We don’t have to be in charge of it literally in order to have influence over it.”

Collaboration will be key for the mayor to help steer the schools, which fall under the school board’s purview — not his. For him, it will be a delicate dance between respecting the board’s hard-won authority and ensuring that the schools do not backslide under local control.

To promote his education vision, Baraka said he plans to meet directly with principals and the districts superintendent, along with outside organizations that want to support the city’s schools. And while he said the school board should remain elected rather than appointed by the mayor, Baraka still intends to steer the direction of the board — and by extension, the school system — by backing candidates who share his vision and possibly even bringing in experts to help craft district policy.

“I wish that there was an opportunity for us to get some higher-ed folks, some other people, in a kind of ad hoc way to be part of programming and decision-making,” he said in an interview last week. While it’s important to have board members who have a stake in the system even if they aren’t policy experts, he added, “Sometimes we might need a curriculum specialist.”

Newark’s mayors have long found ways to shape the school system even after they stopped appointing school-board members in the 1980s and the state seized control in 1995.

Baraka’s predecessor, Cory Booker, saw the state takeover as a golden opportunity to push a set of sweeping reforms, which he achieved with the help of then-Gov. Chris Christie and $200 million in private donations. Baraka took the exact opposite approach, negotiating with Christie to end the takeover and reempower Newark’s school board.

Now that the schools are back under the board’s control, Baraka does not plan to step quietly aside.

Instead, he is endorsing a slate of three candidates in the board’s April 17 election. For the third year in a row, he joined a North Ward councilman and the city’s charter-school leaders in backing that slate — even though he believes that charter schools “suck the life” out of district schools by siphoning students and funding.

Baraka’s pick for the slate, Dawn Haynes, is a City Hall employee. But the mayor insisted that does not mean she will do his bidding on the board.

“Ultimately, the only time you have full control or influence over those people is during the election,” he said, referring to candidates he has endorsed. “Once they get on that board — history has proven to me, human nature — people are going to do what they want to do.”

Yet there may be other ways to influence the board’s decision-making, Baraka suggested.

He would like to see experts from the various colleges and universities based in Newark weigh in on Newark Public Schools programs and curriculum, he said, adding that he has discussed the idea with local lawmakers and university officials. While the plan to give outside experts a voice in district policy making is still being developed, Baraka said it was partly in response to concerns he has about some board members.

“A lot of folks look at the board — because it’s elected — as a stepping stone to other politics; they’re not really as committed to the schools as they should be,” he said. “Which is a reason why we need to get some other professionals to be at the table” to deal with “curriculum issues, issues around attendance, some of the problems we really have.”

(One current board member, Crystal Fonseca, is running for city council in May’s municipal elections. She is part of a slate of candidates aligned with Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, who is opposing Baraka in the mayoral election.)

Officials at Rutgers University-Newark have had preliminary discussions with City Hall about how they might support the school board, according to Peter Englot, the university’s senior vice chancellor for public affairs. Rutgers professors could act as consultants or provide training to board members, he said.

“If the city school district wants us there,” Englot said, “we will be there to do whatever we can to support the decision-making process and the professional development of the school board.”

Looking beyond the board, Baraka said he would convene biannual meetings with the city’s principals to discuss their shared priorities, and would stay in close touch with the superintendent.

He also promised to keep promoting his pet cause — a two-year-old effort to turn a handful of South Ward schools into “community schools” that offer students physical and mental-health services in addition to academics. A “children’s cabinet” of city agencies and outside organizations is now trying to find a way to spread the model, Baraka said.

“We talk about how to grow the school-wide model from just the South Ward, a couple of schools, to how do you get it across the district,” he said. “How do you sustain it?”

Mateus Baptista, a former advisor to the mayor on education, said that creating more community schools is an “enormous endeavor” that will require public buy-in and help from partner organizations. Baraka is well-positioned to lead that charge, said Baptista, now a program officer at the Victoria Foundation.

“I see him as that sort of ambassador,” he said, noting that Baraka does not have formal authority over the schools. “It’s soft influence.”