Newark’s recent search for a new superintendent was designed to be free from political interference. Then a state lawmaker got involved.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Newark native and one of the city’s North Ward powerbrokers, pressured state officials to remove a state-appointed member of the superintendent search committee, according to a person with direct knowledge of the request. The member was removed and replaced with someone with North Ward connections.
Later, after the search committee chose three finalists, as required by state guidelines, Ruiz called the state education commissioner to demand that a fourth superintendent candidate be added to the list, according to a person told about the call. The chair of the Newark school board, who also has North Ward political ties, made the same request in an email. In response, the commissioner agreed to amend the state guidelines, intended to safeguard against meddling, to allow a fourth candidate.
A few weeks later, the board voted for the new superintendent: Roger León, a longtime Newark educator and administrator backed by Ruiz.
“Congratulations to Roger Leon on his appointment as the Superintendent for Newark Public Schools,” Ruiz wrote on Facebook. “His life’s work has been dedicated to our children.”
The board’s vote last month was an historic occasion — the first time it chose the city’s schools chief since the 1990s, when the state seized control of the district due to corruption and poor performance. Because of the significance of the superintendent selection, both practically and symbolically, state officials included step-by-step instructions for the search in the plan they created to guide the district’s transition back to local control of the schools.
But Ruiz’s backchannel involvement in the process shows how easily those guardrails were cleared as people who weren’t technically part of the search sought to influence its outcome.
“While politics is always a part of urban education, you set up rules to minimize the effect — particularly of elected officials,” said Alan Sadovnik, a professor of education and sociology at Rutgers University-Newark.
He said he saw no evidence the political involvement in this case was based on “corrupt intent.” Still, he added, “It may not bode well if at the very outset, when the whole world is watching, when you’re moving back to local control, the rules are not followed.”
State education department spokesman Michael Yaple did not answer questions about Ruiz’s involvement in the selection process. But he disputed that the education commissioner replaced a committee member, saying that only one person was ever “formally appointed” — appearing to contradict a statement by the state-appointed superintendent in December.
Through a spokeswoman, Ruiz declined to answer any questions about her role in the search.
“The senator is not going to comment on the superintendent search,” the spokeswoman, Jen Sweet, said. “The search is over, and she would like to focus on the future of Newark schools.”
In December, the state education department released a two-year plan that details the steps the district must take to regain full authority over its schools. One requirement was that the board hire a private firm to conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be screened by a seven-member search committee. The committee was to include three board members, three civic leaders, and one state appointee.
At the board’s public meeting on December 19, then-Superintendent Christopher Cerf said he had urged the state education commissioner to appoint a Newark educator to the committee. Then he announced that the state had heeded his advice: Carolyn Granato, a former Newark principal who currently heads up the district’s special-education office, was the state’s pick.
“She’s the seventh person on the selection committee,” Cerf said.
Yaple, the education department spokesman, said that Granato was never “formally appointed.” He did not immediately respond to an email asking him to explain Cerf’s public statement.
Whether or not Granato was “formally” the state’s pick, she did not last long. Soon after Cerf’s announcement, Ruiz called the state education commissioner at the time, Kimberley Harrington, and insisted that Granato be replaced, according to the person with direct knowledge of the request, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversation.
“She aggressively demanded that the former commissioner change [Granato] out,” the person said.
Harrington, who did not respond to requests for comment, declined to choose a new committee member, the person said. But Harrington herself was on the way out.
On Jan. 29, Lamont Repollet became acting commissioner. Chosen by newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy, Repollet was confirmed on Thursday by the state senate — where Ruiz, as the education committee chair, holds considerable sway.
Soon after taking over, Repollet replaced Granato with Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, a real estate attorney who was on the Newark school board in the early 2000s and is currently an Essex County Schools of Technology board member.
Carrillo-Perez is also connected to North Ward politics. She contributed to North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr.’s campaign in 2011, according to election records, and was a co-chair of an event in April for Ramos’ reelection campaign, according to a post on the councilman’s Facebook page. (Ruiz was listed as a chair of that campaign event.)
Carrillo-Perez did not respond to emailed questions.
In late April, the search committee — with Carrillo-Perez as its state-appointed member — selected three finalists to present to the school board. However, some of the members felt that a strong candidate had been left off the shortlist.
At that point, Ruiz intervened. She contacted Repollet directly to ask that he amend the transition plan to allow for four candidates, according to the person who was told about the call and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Around the same time, search committee member and school board chair Josephine Garcia also asked Repollet to allow a fourth candidate — despite the objections of some of her fellow committee members who wanted to stick with the three candidates whom the group had already agreed to, in accordance with state guidelines, as Chalkbeat has previously reported.
Garcia also has deep North Ward ties. Councilman Ramos backed her in last year’s school-board election, and she was listed as a co-chair of the same April campaign event for Ramos that Carrillo-Perez and Ruiz participated in.
Repollet granted their request. On April 27, he sent Garcia a letter saying he would allow four candidates “in order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding” the right person.
Search committee members have refused to say who among the candidates was the fourth added to the shortlist. But on May 22, after León narrowly won a closed-door poll, all nine board members agreed to publicly vote for León.
The next day, Garcia posted the news of León’s selection on Facebook, adding, “Long overdue.”
Update: This story was updated to reflect that the state senate confirmed Lamont Repollet as education commissioner on Thursday.