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

Friday, November 2, 2012

NJDOE Meddles In Local Politics

Not even superstorm Sandy can calm the rancor in Perth Amboy's schools:
A final decision from the state assistant education commissioner on a judge’s ruling upholding the school board’s May vote to place Superintendent of Schools Janine Walker Caffrey on administrative leave has been delayed.
On Wednesday, Board of Education President Samuel Lebreault said the board received a decision from the assistant state education commissioner that sent the case back to the administrative law judge because certain issues required further study.
“We are disappointed by the delay that these proceedings will pose to implementation of the lawful will of this board and we are confident that we ultimately will prevail,” Lebreault said.
So the duly elected local school board made a personnel decision. An administrative judge upheld their decision. But the education commissioner's office gets to override their decision because... well, because Commissioner Chris Cerf wants to, I guess.

Obviously, Cerf's office is punting until after the November school board election. It's clear that this has been the tactic since last spring. Do you think they would try this with a suburban district?

You tell me.

And what if the new school board doesn't support Caffrey? Will Cerf allow the board's decision to stand? Here's a clue:
He [Cerf] said it is the school board’s responsibility to pick an effective school superintendent who will move the district forward, but the board must then let that person do their job, even if it does generate controversy.
Boards do not exist to make microdecisions about personnel,” he said. “When I hear about some of the things that are happening, I know that is a dysfunctional district.” [emphasis mine]
I think we all know which district he was talking about, don't we?

Caffrey is New Jersey's Queen of Tenure. The lobbying group B4K, which stands against teacher tenure, paid for a public relations campaign in her defense. Caffrey brought in a contractor, who just happens to be a buddy of Cerf's, for a big, expensive deal with the district.

Does anyone doubt what Cerf's office will decide if the school board elections don't go Caffrey's way?

And just in case you think I'm reading too much into this:
One slate of Perth Amboy school board candidates has raised more than $44,500, much of it from founders and supporters of charter schools, some from out-of-state, an opposing slate charged Monday.
"That's an obscene amount of money," said Jeanette Gonzalez, who is running with three other candidates under the banner "New Vision, New Voice."
Four candidates running under the name "Better Schools Now" released a state election financing report that showed they have raised $44,500 in campaigns funds as of Oct. 9.
Gonzalez and her running mates, Nina Perkins-Nieves, Benjamin Salerno and Maria Garcia, have raised about $5,000, according to their report. Gonzalez said her husband previously served four terms on the school board and never raised large sums for his campaigns. She said school board campaigns often raise $5,000 to $8,000[emphasis mine]
So outsiders are paying an "obscene" amount of money to fund a local school board election. And the NJ Education Commissioner's office just happens to be delaying a crucial ruling on a controversial superintendent until after that election.

Meddling in local politics is not the job of the NJDOE (although they often act as if it were). If the Perth Amboy board violated the rules in removing Caffrey, the NJDOE should say so. If not, the board's decision should stand, and the school board members who made the decision should be accountable to the local voters. Any other interference by the NJDOE is nothing more than political tampering.

Further: now that New Jersey has moved so many school board elections to November, we need to be watching for a nasty national trend: large amounts of money flooding into local school board races. At the very least, there should be full transparency about where this money is coming: no more hiding behind PACs. (I can't access NJ campaign records right now thanks to Sandy, but I will be looking at this closely as soon as I can.)

And, again: B4K never should have involved itself in this affair. There is too much danger for at least the appearance of a quid pro quo when a well-heeled group like B4K sticks its nose into a local matter. They ought to have stayed out; since they didn't, they owe it to the citizens of Perth Amboy - and, yes, to Caffrey herself - to show us that their funding of Caffrey's public defense has not tainted her ability to do her job.

That is, if she stays. Stay tuned...

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