Board of Education meets with Cerf in Closed Session as Superintendent Search Continues

Some 40 people were stuck on the outside looking in for more than an hour on Dec. 22 when acting state education commissioner Christopher Cerf met with the school board in a closed session to discuss the ongoing superintendent search.

Cerf and board members conferred at a special meeting in the board’s central office on Claremont Avenue. The closed session received mostly negative reviews from the citizens present, a group made up of primarily parents and community activists. Some criticized the board for not allowing residents the chance to address the commissioner — the public-comment portion of the meeting was scheduled for after Cerf’s appearance.

And Cerf, accompanied by his chief of staff David Hespe, declined to stay to take comments from the public. He did address two questions from JCI before he and Hespe cut the session short and left.

The board also deadlocked twice at 4-4 during the meeting, with Patricia Sebron abstaining both times, in trying to appoint a superintendent search firm. The board’s search committee chairwoman had anticipated a selection would be made that night but in the end, no selection was made.

The stalemate prompted some speakers to claim it proves the search committee is a waste of time and money and call for the full board to take the reins, with strong sentiment expressed towards simply elevating incoming interim superintendent Franklin Walker to the permanent position.

Ultimately, the board decided to hold a special meeting in mid-January but was still working out the details. The January meeting is expected to involve representatives from both search firm finalists taking residents’ questions — Ray and Associates of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and West Hudson Associates, a local company led by former state education commissioner William Librera — but it was not known whether the firms would agree.

As for the closed portion of the meeting with Cerf, Board President Sterling Waterman originally estimated it would last about 45 minutes. Yet Arnold B. Williams, a harsh critic of the commissioner who says he’s organized a group to support the district against the state, said his cellphone clock showed Cerf kept residents waiting about 90 minutes.

An impatient Williams and others occasionally peered through the windows of the board’s first-floor conference room to mark the time. Williams periodically displayed his phone clock from behind the window, trying to remind the participants they were far exceeding Waterman’s original estimate.

The focus of the meeting stemmed from a controversial Dec. 2 email Cerf sent Waterman in which he claimed the board was ignoring his efforts to offer input in helping find a successor to departing superintendent Charles Epps.

Cerf also wrote in his email that the board needs to act in a way which assures the next superintendent will bring “transformational change” to the state’s second largest school system. In an email sent before the meeting, Cerf’s spokesman Justin Barra declined to elaborate on what the acting commissioner meant specifically, telling JCI he would do so in the closed session.

“The commissioner is meeting with the board tonight to discuss his thoughts,” was all Barra would say.

Further, Cerf wrote in the email that it is his “obligation to explore all the options the law empowers me with” to defend the interests of city schoolchildren. This statement has caused some to fear the commissioner might be looking into trying to reassert the state’s authority by retaking full control of the school system. While the state retains its power over approving personnel and curriculum matters, the board has regained control of governance issues. The latter allows it to search for its own superintendent.

Upon leaving, Cerf did not rule out coming to Jersey City for a community meeting to address questions, but told JCI, “I’m going to follow the board’s lead on that.”

When he was told that some residents felt he deliberately wanted to avoid hearing them, the acting commissioner seemed unconcerned, saying, “If that’s their opinion, then go ahead and report it.”

Cerf’s decision to leave the meeting rather than address the public brought no clarity to the concerns outlined in his vaguely worded email. One speaker, Jayson Burg, an unsuccessful 2011 school board candidate, told trustees he had come to the meeting expecting Cerf would be willing to share his views with the public.

When told of Cerf’s comments, Williams, a local businessman who lost in the 2011 Democratic county freeholder primary challenging the organization, said that conservative education policymakers such as Cerf embrace secrecy. He alleged Cerf was serving as a mere surrogate trying to impose Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s will upon Jersey City.

“It’s sad,” he said. “People sharing Mr. Cerf’s philosophies on education are so far removed from the public, they have no concept of who the public is.”

Still, Williams said he would be one of the first to welcome Cerf to Jersey City — if the acting commissioner was amenable to a public question-and-answer session with no restrictions.

“In fact, I’d be willing to debate Mr. Cerf on why it’s so important to protect our current free public education system in New Jersey,” added Williams, a fervent opponent of key education initiatives supported by Cerf and Christie: more charter schools and vouchers to help parents unhappy with public education attend private schools.

Williams and resident Elizabeth Perry criticized the board for not placing the public comment portion before Cerf’s departure.

“Cerf was really interested in avoiding us because we’d at least have had a minute or two to let him hear how we felt about our district,” Perry complained to the board.

Yet Waterman defended the closed meeting as needed and proper. He offered no apologies for opening with the long closed session to accommodate Cerf, who, he said, rejected the board’s invitation to take public comment.

“We have to be courteous to the state,” Waterman said, alluding to the state’s continued control of the district in terms of personnel and curriculum.

Despite Cerf’s threat of potential legal action, as stated in the email, Waterman assured residents, “At the meeting, there was a pledge to assist us. He didn’t threaten to take us over.”

The only person questioned by JCI who supported Cerf was Felicia Palmer, co-founder of the Jersey City Coalition of Parent-Teacher Organizations.

“I welcome his appearance,” said Palmer, who presented Cerf with a letter outlining her concerns. “The public cannot be present for every discussion, as there are legitimate issues allowed to be discussed in closed session.”

Palmer noted she believes Cerf can play a critical role in the search, saying, “I’m interested in him coming here only with the intent of helping this badly divided board work together in the interests of our schoolchildren. I do not want him to take control of the district.”

In contrast to Palmer, the Rev. Eugene Overstreet, pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church of Christ and Ministries, was unhappy with the arrangement. The city minister faulted the board, alleging it showed an arrogance to the public.

“It’s a common disease spreading across the country affecting all our elected officials,” he told the board. “When you’re running for office, you run to us. Once you’re elected to office, you run from us.”

Asked by JCI if the board’s effort to accommodate Cerf at the expense of keeping the public out for a 90-minute closed session made the board look bad, Vice President Carol Lester would not answer yes or no.

“Acting Commissioner Cerf wished to address the board on personnel matters the law requires us to discuss in closed session,” she said. “But it’s not something I, personally, wanted to do.”

During a phone interview with JCI before Cerf’s appearance, David Sciarra, a Cerf critic and executive director of the nonprofit Education Law Center (ELC), which earlier defeated Cerf and Christie in the state’s Supreme Court to get more state aid for Jersey City and other former Abbott districts, urged the acting commissioner to take the opposite approach.

“As much as I disagree with him, he is the state’s acting education commissioner and the people of Jersey City need to hear his views on the subject,” Sciarra said. “But he should start with a public appearance. Starting off by sending an email and then entering the backroom by holding a closed session with the board sets the wrong tone.”

The ELC head said the district has seen conditions improve to the point where the state has given the board autonomy to select its own permanent superintendent. Even so, he said, the board and community should hear Cerf out on the matter.

“He should address the public on the type of superintendent he’d like to see lead Jersey City. He doesn’t have to mention names,” Sciarra said. “Mr. Cerf also needs to define how he wants to bring ‘transformational change’ to Jersey City.”

While Barra had stated that Cerf wanted to discuss his “thoughts” at the meeting, Board Attorney Ramon Rivera said Cerf’s “thoughts” met the legal criteria triggering a closed session.

“Had the parties discussed any issues not within the law, I would have immediately stopped them,” Rivera said.

He noted that the closed session’s minutes will be released to the public once the board concludes they no longer need to be sealed, but he did not say when that would be.

As for the board’s failing to approve a search firm, resident Gilbert Moore told trustees it validated his view that the search committee is more of an obstacle than a help.

“I certainly believe the superintendent search has been a kick in the budget because you guys can’t work together,” said Moore, reiterating his position, initially stated at a Dec. 17 search committee hearing, that Walker is already the logical choice for permanent superintendent.

Board member Carol Harrison-Arnold, a search committee member, said the national recruitment effort must continue because it would guarantee the best choice.

“There are parents in this community who want a national search,” she said. “Not everyone in this community knows who (Walker) is.”

Chris Neidenberg

a freelance reporter with extensive experience covering municipalities throughout North Jersey.