Newark school board elects chair amid criticism

Newly elected board members with Marquis-Aquil Lewis, who was voted president of the school board. From L-R: Josephine Garcia, Reginald Bledsoe, Lewis, Flohisha Johnson.

The Newark school board that is expected to usher in local control took the reins Tuesday amid a bitter debate over how transactional politics—and not the best interests of students—are still at the heart of Newark Public Schools.

At the root of the controversy on Tuesday was who was voted as the new president and vice president of the board. Marquis Lewis, who had the support of Mayor Ras Baraka, was installed as president and Tave Padilla, who was supported by North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., as vice president. 

Lewis works for City Hall and Padilla works for The North Ward Center. Opposition to Lewis was pointed, including by his fellow board members. 

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"My concerns were around the process of how the leadership was chosen and then the outcome of having two men [in the two top spots],” said Board member Leah Owens in complaining about Lewis’ ascendance. She noted that there are 6 women on the board and three men. 
Just prior to the board vote, board member Kim Gaddy echoed those sentiments and both Owens and Gaddy voted no. 

But the deal had been hammered out ahead of time, and the men sailed into leadership at the vote. 

Newark Public Schools has been under state control for more than 20 years. It’s widely expected that the board will re-assume control in the coming year. It’s unclear how Tuesday’s vote may affect that. Some say the reorganization vote potentially jeopardizes the return of local control. 

“If I’m the New Jersey Department of Education and I’m considering returning local control to Newark Public Schools and I see how they just picked politics over kids in deciding who would lead this $1 billion organization, I think I’m going to wonder if this board is really ready to get control back this year,” said Kevin Jenkins, the husband of Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, who supported fourth place finisher Charles Love and fifth place finisher Deborah Terrell, a former interim superintendent of Newark Public Schools. 

The three newly elected members of the Newark school advisory board  -- Josephine Garcia, Flohisha Johnson, and Reginald Bledsoe – were formally sworn into duty on Tuesday night. The three were part of a Unity Slate supported by the mayor, Ramos and PC2E, a pro-charter organization.

Mayor Baraka’s brother and chief of staff, Middy Baraka, Ramos, his chief of staff, Sammy Gonzalez, and Councilman Gonzalez were in the audience for the ceremonies.
Garcia works in Councilman Gonzalez’s office, Bledsoe is chief of staff to Osborne, and Flo Johnson was the candidate backed by PC2E.

Of the outgoing board members Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Donald Jackson Jr., and Phillip Seelinger Jr. - only Richardson was present at the meeting. She gracefully congratulated the incoming members and thanked the community for the opportunity to serve. She further vowed to continue being a vocal advocate for the children of Newark beyond her service on the advisory board.

"I'm a public school parent," said Garcia shortly after her swearing in ceremony. "It's about the Newark kids - a public education. That's why we're here. That why I am here tonight."

Denise Cole, a community advocate who ran unsuccessfully for the board this year, said she will be keeping a close eye on the board and holding them accountable for their actions moving forward in her public remarks during the meeting.

"We are facing a very difficult time where we are getting going for local control and when we get local control, we're going to choose the top position in this city next to the mayor is the one in the school district," Cole said. "That leads every child into every career in America, so it is imperative to understand what we have, it's imperative that we keep our public school system intact and we rebuild our curriculum because curriculum is what drives education."

In response to the criticism, Lewis said he is hopeful that the board can come together and move forward past the election and toward a common goal of doing what is right for the children of Newark. He recognized the concerns that were expressed both by board members as well as members of the public, but he indicates that it is in fact the first time that the board has an all male leadership in 4 years.

"It's time that a male take the lead, and not only a male but a father," noted Lewis. "My son will be attending Newark public schools. I'm sending a message to other Newark public school fathers that we can lead."

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