MORRISON: Newark Schools Are Back in Crisis While the Board Rewards the Superintendent. Let’s Do This Instead.

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Jasmine Morrison is a Newark parent whose children attend public schools in the city. She runs a Newark-based parent advocacy group called Unapologetic Parents.

Newark’s public education system is once again in crisis. 

Last week, it was discovered that the Newark Board of Education might have silently allowed Superintendent Roger León’s contract to be renewed for an additional five-year term, without as much as a discussion in a public meeting, much less an actual vote by the nine-member group. Most concerning and immediate, it appears that under state law, the board has only until today, Jan. 31 to turn this situation around and give the community a say. 

Since news broke on this issue last week, the school board and the superintendent have been feeling the heat. Despite recent attempts by the board to defend the renewal process, the facts are clear — there was no engagement with the Newark community for reaction or input on León’s contract renewal. The board did not make a public announcement about the renewal last spring when it should have, and now many parents in Newark are openly questioning the board’s views on governance 

I’m no lawyer, but I am an engaged parent and know that New Jersey law caps superintendent contracts at five years, and if the board wants to argue that its procedurally flawed 2019 vote on León’s current contract was sufficient, they essentially might have handed León a 10-year contract — which would seem illegal. 

However, what’s even more disturbing are the actual outcomes that now burden the city. 

In receiving a new, five-year, $1.5 million contract, León gets a significant annual salary and, with cost-of-living increases, it could rise additionally by thousands of dollars annually. 

Confusion, lack of transparency 

In addition, because of the lack of transparency, there is great confusion in Newark on the construction of León’s contract. We still do not know what will happen five years from now when this next contract expires. Will we get a say then, or be kept in the dark once more? 

But most worrying of all, there are no performance measures in place for this new contract and salary raises at a time when we need them the most. 

In football, the best players get the best contracts. Performance on the field is rewarded with dollar signs. At the Newark Board of Education, it seems that performance is not connected to the contract of the most important player on the field: the superintendent.  

Speaking for parents around the city, we hope the board does the right thing. We need to press the pause button immediately. We have time to fix this, but we only have days to do so, and the clock is ticking. There are expectations and answers that need to be addressed before we should consider renewing the superintendent’s contract. 

Have parents been provided a voice during this renewal process? 

How have Newark students fared academically under Roger León?  

Are Mr. León’s goals and milestones aligned with what the community expects to be achieved? 

Fair questions 

These basic and fair questions should have been asked before his contract renewal was rubber-stamped. 

At the Jan. 21 board meeting, the superintendent enumerated all he has done well in the past five years as if he were in a job interview. This recap was designed to address the uproar in the city since word got out about his contract renewal. That self-congratulatory “then and now” speech was an instructive presentation, but it was incomplete and one-sided. 

For instance, he told us he hired back the attendance counselors dismissed by a previous administration. That is all well and good if that action leads to results. The attendance counselors were hired back in February 2019 with much fanfare. “Having hired these attendance officers will get us where we need to go,” the superintendent said at the time. 

But what are the results? Absenteeism in Newark public schools didn’t improve and actually got worse in November of this year, for the third month in a row. In the November report, all schools had fewer than 50% of students in the “rarely” absent category, and many schools had more than 40% of their students chronically or severely chronically absent.  

We need schools and curricula that motivate children to attend school every day. We need inspiration, not just policing of children. We need complex strategies for complex problems. We need a vision for how absenteeism can be tackled with tangible results that show the plan is working. 

What was not addressed 

At that last board meeting, in nearly an hour of “I did this” and “watch this: I did that,” there were glaring omissions, given school districts exist for one purpose: to educate children. León said nothing about absenteeism. He said nothing about the rising and unfettered racial tensions at the Newark School of Global Studies, where Black students have been targeted and harassed. Worst of all, he said nothing about academics. 

Academically, we are seeing a crisis unfolding in our city during León’s watch. Only 13% of Newark public school students passed the math portion of the state exams in 2022, and 27% passed the English part. That is well below the state average of 37% in math and 49% in English. But the situation is worse for our Black students in Newark. Only 8% were proficient in math, and 21% were proficient in literacy. 

These results merit a discussion on what the community should expect from anyone with a five-year, $1.5 million contract. 

The time is now right to do what is right. New Jersey Code 18A:11 gives the community a right to spend 30 days sharing input on the superintendent’s contract before the board acts. Under state regulation, Jan. 31 is the date by which the board can preserve that right for our community.  

The ball is in the board’s court. 

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