I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pushing The Ethics Envelope

The co-chair of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools (JCPS) says news of acting state education commissioner Christopher Cerf’s meeting secretly in a private residence in 2011 with some Board of Education members and Councilman Steven Fulop to discuss future action on then-superintendent Charles Epps’ contract is something the committee would want to investigate, as is the way in which Jersey City’s new schools superintendent was hired.

“This calls for an investigation,” says state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-29) of Newark, co-chair of the 13-member committee, which consists of seven assemblymen and six senators. “A candidate for mayor, Mr. Fulop, arranges a meeting with Cerf, some residents and school board members in someone’s house to discuss pending issues not yet decided by the board? Where’s the transparency?”
According to a report Friday in the Hudson Reporter, Fulop, who has been accused of helping orchestrate the hiring of the new superintendent, Marcia Lyles, convened a secret meeting on May 3, 2011 involving Cerf, some residents, two sitting board members and two board members-elect in a home at 274 Arlington Avenue. At that time, the board was preparing to remove Epps. Ultimately, the board selected Lyles over a second finalist, South Carolina educator Debra Brathwaite.

In an email, Fulop invites current board members Marvin Adames, Carol Harrison-Arnold, Sterling Waterman and Carol Lester to attend the meeting. Others invited included Shelley Skinner, deputy director of the Better Education for Kids school choice advocacy group, and Ellen Simon, founder of Parents for Progress, the committee allied with Fulop that endorsed the three winning board candidates in the last election.
The meeting, however, would not be a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act, better known as the Sunshine Law. The law, which was passed in order to increase government transparency, requires that decision-making government bodies “conduct their business in public,” with a few exceptions such as when discussing pending lawsuits.
There are a number of stipulations for when a meeting would be required to be open, such as if a majority of a body’s members are in attendance. That was not the case in this instance, as two of the attendees were Board Members-elect and not yet technically public officials. [emphasis mine]
OK, hold on here. You're telling me that this meeting was just fine because these people had won an election but hadn't been sworn in yet? Gimme a break. Cerf should have known better; he's in charge of setting the standard for the state. This is exactly what Senator Loretta Weinberg meant when she warned Cerf to "sharpen his ethics antennae" earlier today. You don't skirt around the spirit of the law when you're trying to set a high bar for yourself.

But transparency is not Cerf's forte:
Still, Cerf has never met in an open public forum with the community at large in Jersey City to discuss the superintendent search. This, despite concerns over secrecy and perceptions that the state long ago determined it wanted Lyles. Cerf did appear before the board last December in a closed personnel session to discuss the issue, after declining to accept the board’s invitation to address the public.
Remember that Lyles and Cerf are both gradates of the Broad Superintendents "Academy." Yet, despite the secret meetings, and despite the fact that Fulop admits he had to convince Cerf that JC wouldn't hire a local candidate, Cerf still insists he wasn't involved in the decision to hire Lyles.

Can you understand how maybe the people of Jersey City might have a problem simply taking his word on this?
Waterman disagrees. He maintains Cerf put the squeeze on the board to hire Lyles, a fellow graduate of the controversial Broad Superintendent’s Academy who also worked with him during their time together in New York City.
“A few days before the final vote (June 28),” says Waterman, “I know we were deadlocked at 4-4, with one undecided – before the state placed a call into the board. After the state placed that call, we were deadlocked no more. Why?
“If someone wants to come to Jersey City and launch an inquiry, l’d be more than happy to tell anyone willing to listen what I think really happened,” Waterman says. “We promised the public there would be transparency in the process and we didn’t get it. I wanted to reopen that process, and a majority of my colleagues on the board refused.”
Rice alleges Newark, a district that remains under state control, has had serious problems dealing with Cerf. The district is now headed by superintendent Cami Anderson, another Cerf acquaintance from New York City who, like Lyles, attended the Broad Academy.
“The state has controlled the Newark and Jersey City school districts for over 20 years,” Rice complains. “I believe “Mr. Cerf’s objective is to keep both firmly under the state’s grip, for as long as it takes, until they are fully privatized.”
Cerf implied today that Paterson was more likely to get back local control than Newark. I guess maybe he thinks the board there is more... docile? Of course, if you're the Star-Ledger, all you have to do is take a glib pot shot at Rice, and all of these problems magically disappear:

Star Ledger Editorial Board

The NJDOE needs to put out a plan as soon as possible that states exactly when and how state-controlled districts can regain control. Because this sort of back-room dealing doesn't do anything for students or citizens, and Rice is quite right to be worried about the growing privatization of New Jersey's schools.


Unknown said...

The timing of this revelation by a member of the JCPS is odd. Where was Rice yesterday? Last week? Shouldn't have Cerf's ethics been elevated for discussion before Cerf's confirmation? Just wondering if Rice's call for an investigation after Cerf is more firmly entrenched is a toothless,cya.

Duke said...

Well, Rice was the one who held up Cerf's nomination hearing for so long, so I give him credit. Rice has been hard on Cerf for some time, but Scutari decided to put through his hearing anyway based on Cerf's "new" address. Rice loses his courtesy block because Cerf officially doesn't live in his district any more.

I think the timing of this has much more to do with the JC mayoral race than Cerf. This was revealed to embarrass Fulop, not Cerf, IMHO.

Hope you're staying cool down there!

Unknown said...

It's hot as blazes here but E TN is getting more rain than most of TN.

I'm headed to NJ next week to go to the shore with my relatives. My 2,000 or so aunts, uncles, cousins,1st cousins, 2nd cousins, 1st cousins once removed, etc., live in So. Jersey area around Philly. Ocean City here I come- woo hoo. Rick can't come up because Knox Co's Broadie superintendent is making teachers come back to school a week early for training. I mean, to be indoctrinated into thinking the 1 -5 TEAM/TAP/Milken "evaluation" means something more than justification to churn teachers.