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

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

It's Always Good To Be Chris Cerf's Friend!

NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has a history of taking care of his buddies.

He got fellow Broad Superintendents Book Club Academy alumnus Marcia Lyles her job in Jersey City, complete with company car and a hefty relocation bonus. Another fellow Broadie, Mike Myles, was pulling down big bucks as a consultant in Paterson. Broadie Penny MacCormack was getting $1,000 a day as an NJDOE consultant before she was confirmed. Cerf's old pal from NYC and Edison, Joel Rose, got an in on a fat contract in Perth Amboy (no word I've seen yet about whether it went through). Cerf's old firm, Global Education Advisors, got one of the earliest tastes of the Zuckerberg Newark money; so did Bradley Tusk, whom Cerf knew from their days working together for Mike Bloomberg's NYC mayoral campaign. Cerf also knew Cami Anderson from his NYC days; he appointed her to run Newark's schools and has all but assured that she will remain in the position indefinitely.

And let's not forget all the Broadies being placed in the NJDOE, or the charters are being placed into the care of Cerf-approved CMOs.

Yes, it's good to be Chris Cerf's friend. Just ask Mt. Olive superintendent Larrie Reynolds:
The Mount Olive proposal won the approval of Education Commissioner Cerf. Cerf and Reynolds have a long history as friends and colleagues.
In addition to his position as superintendent, Reynolds is the president of Sangari Active Science, a subsidiary of Sangari Global Education, a company that provides science books to public schools. It was once run by Cerf and Cerf’s brother, Randy, is currently the chief financial officer for Sangari Global.
Before he was hired in Mount Olive, Reynolds was director of Newton Learning, an education company he formed as a division of Edison Schools. Edison Schools is a private education management company and Cerf was formerly the chief operating officer. [emphasis mine]
Wow, these two go way back. So, how did Cerf help his buddy Larrie out?
The school district was approved as a “state choice district” in August meaning that for the 2013-14 [sic] school year it could enroll students from other districts and gain as much as $2 million in additional state aid to educate the new students.
The application was approved by the state Department of Education and Commissioner Christopher Cerf, a longtime friend and former business associate of Mount Olive Schools Superintendent Larrie Reynolds.
But in September, the district withdrew its application, claiming it didn’t have enough time to attract enough students from other districts. Reynolds said he expects to apply again for the 2013-14 school year.
Assemblywoman Jacey Miley, D-Essex, was the prime sponsor for the school choice act. She said the intent was not to create new programs, like Mount Olive’s proposed Sunset High School. Rather the bill was created to attract students to existing programs to bolster falling enrollments in choice districts.
However, educators involved with the state school choice program and the Assemblywoman who sponsored the legislation said Mount Olive’s application seemed to be contrary to the letter and spirit of the law. [emphasis mine]
Oh, dear; you mean Cerf's good friend was messing with the intent of the law to create an entirely new program? According to the law's sponsor, it seems that way:
“(Choice) districts with vacancies could make those seats available to students from outside the district,” Miley said. “The original impetus was to give districts that were losing students the opportunity to increase enrollments and to help other districts that were growing very rapidly to avoid building new schools. It was for districts to fill up seats and to help bulging districts.”
Miley said the proposed Sunset High School “would strike me as not being within the scope of the law.”
She said choice districts could not restrict out of district students to those with either academic deficiencies or those who were particularly athletically or musically gifted.
“The whole idea of creating new programs was not part of the bill,” Miley said.
[emphasis mine]
Well, didn't anyone at NJDOE object to the application?
Several people involved in the state choice program said the Mount Olive proposal fit the definition of an alternative school that would not qualify as a choice district.
Maggie Downham, former acting director of the Department of Education’s public school choice program, said she was concerned when the Mount Olive application was submitted and that it was approved over her objections.
She said the Mount Olive Board of Education approved the establishment of an “alternative school” at its Nov. 14, 2011 work session.
“The application of Mount Olive to be a choice district is limited to openings in their alternative program; therefore, this application should not have been approved, since alternative schools are organized under Chapter 16, and are not choice-eligible school districts,” Downham said.
Mount Olive withdrew its application shortly after an Open Public Records Act or OPRA  request was filed for information pertaining to the application. Reynolds said the application was withdrawn because there was not enough time to mount an extended advertising program to attract potential students in other districts.
[emphasis mine]
Yes, I'm sure the fact that the application was withdrawn right after an OPRA request is just a happy coincidence...

Phil Garber's story here for the Mt. Olive Chronicle is good, but it does gloss over a critical point made in reporting last year by Bob Braun at the Star-Ledger:
Under Reynolds’s plan, a company he says that he represents as a consultant — GEMS Education — would help a school district apply to the commissioner to become a "district of choice" under a newly expanded inter-district choice law, allowing it to admit students from other communities. The law gives the commissioner the power of approval.
GEMS Education, a company owned and funded by Dubai entrepreneur Sunny Varkey, would recruit outside students for the program, hire teachers privately for lower-than-contract salaries and provide supplies for a "pathways" program run independently of, but under contract to the district. The private company would split the additional state aid coming into the district as a result of its status as a choice district.
Reynolds says the company would have to make a "sizable" capital investment in the program and "take on a lot of risk." Only a private entrepreneur could do that, he says.
The Mount Olive schools chief, who has distributed materials on the program at meetings of school administrators, has not yet filed an application. He says his own district might apply. Reynolds says he works as a consultant for GEMS Education and is not being paid for bringing in customers. [emphasis mine]
That's from December of 2011. Garber updates us on Reynolds relationship with GEMS:

Reynolds also is a consultant for GEMS Education, a company formed in 1980 by Sunny Varkey, a wealthy businessman from Dubai who made his money in forming for-profit schools. The non-profit  company claims to be the world’s largest K–12 provider of international education.
“I serve on a very part-time basis as a resource for GEMS Americas, providing them insight into the New Jersey Public School Choice program and the need for quality after school high school programming for students that are over aged and under credited,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds has spoken to school boards in Butler and Boonton about applying for certification as choice districts in a program that would partner with GEMS.

Did the last application from Mt. Olive - the one that was withdrawn - also call for GEMS to administer the program? Garber's story doesn't make that clear. However, even if GEMS isn't involved in the Mt. Olive contract, it would certainly help them drum up future business in other districts if the program is established. The fact that Reynolds is pitching the concept to Butler and Boonton speaks volumes as to whether GEMS believes this is a sector with good growth potential.

Can I say that this entire thing leaves a really, really bad taste in my mouth? First of all: when does Reynolds sleep? He runs a textbook company, he consults for another education provider, he goes around to other districts talking up their services, and he runs a school district? I guess the Mt. Olive school board is fine with all of this. Personally, I think being a super is one of the most time-consuming jobs there is; I can't imagine anyone doing it having time for much else. Maybe Reynolds needs to burn the midnight oil since Chris Christie capped superintendent salaries in the state.

Aside from that: is it appropriate for Reynolds to be selling his wares at school administrator meetings when he's wearing the hat of superintendent? I don't know what the ethics guidelines are for such things, but it just rubs me the wrong way. Would other vendors be allowed the access to superintendents Reynolds enjoys as one of their own?

But here's what I see as the real issue: why is Chris Cerf approving a program for his friend when the program, according to his own staff, "seemed to be contrary to the letter and spirit of the law"? Chris Cerf has accrued a lot of power to himself, but he is not a legislator. His job is to enforce the law, not twist it to help out his buddies.

At his confirmation hearing, Senator Loretta Weinberg told Cerf he needed to "sharpen up your ethical antennae." This strikes me as yet another example of Cerf not understanding Weinberg's point. You don't change the law just because your friends ask you to.

By the way: I wish I knew who put in that OPRA request. I hope we hear from him or her soon.

I left my antennae in my other pants, too...


ad77 said...

Jazzman - you've been reporting and exposing on some really crazy things on a national level......but for stuff like this...


isthisrob said...

As I understand it, the entire Mt Olive board is in Reynolds' back pocket.

(a friend of ours lives there and her husband works in the district).

Larrie is quite the asshole.

Unknown said...

Interesting comment isthisrob...

and it very well may be true. But if all the facts in this story are true and it appears that they are, these BFFs (Cerf & Reynolds) are twisting the law to fit their agenda of making money for their friends and themselves!

The real question is "will they get away with it?"