Cerf Defends Fulop Meeting, Fields Questions on Turnaround Plan and State Control at Public Hearing

New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf insisted during a meeting with residents last night that he did nothing improper when he met privately with Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop and a small group of residents and school board members last year to discuss issues related to finding a new superintendent, though he later refused the school board’s invitation to do the same in a public meeting.
    
“If I am invited into a community, whether by elected officials or private citizens, I am happy to meet with them,” Cerf said during a two-and-a-half hour meeting at New Jersey City University. “I’ve done it before. I’d be happy to do it again.”
 
Cerf was responding to concerns voiced by the Jersey City NAACP’s Telissa Dowling at a forum that included a question-and-answer session for about half the time. The first half of the meeting, which was convened by State Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-31), focused on Cerf’s controversial turnaround plan for schools deemed failing throughout the state and his general philosophy for reforming education. The audience of about 200 included members of the school board, new superintendent Marcia Lyles, Fulop, and Assemblymen Charles Mainor (D-31) and Sean Connors (D-33). Connors is a former board member. 
 
The public appearance marked the first since the Board of Education’s selection of Lyles, Cerf’s former co-worker in the New York City school system, as superintendent. Lyles’ hiring followed a controversial selection process during which board vice president Sterling Waterman accused the commissioner of trying to bully the board into hiring her, though the state has repeatedly said it was neutral on the selection.

Cerf did not address the Lyles controversy. A report in yesterday’s Jersey Journal quoted Cunningham as saying residents would not be allowed to ask Cerf questions on the subject.
 
Of the May 2011 private meeting with Fulop — who, in an email to participants, asked that they keep it a secret — Dowling said, “You should not have had a meeting with Steve Fulop. You should have come to us [the community].”               
 
While Cerf characterized the meeting as a discussion about community concerns, Fulop has said its focus was to discuss issues related to eventually replacing then-superintendent Charles Epps. At the time, Fulop and city school choice advocate Shelley Skinner were challenging the board’s earlier decision to grant Epps a three-year contract extension with the state’s Office of Administrative Law.

While the case was never decided, the delay gave a new board majority time to negotiate a buyout with Epps after Cerf agreed to waive the state’s mandatory cap on superintendent’s pay, eventually paving the way for Lyles, who, like Cerf, graduated from the controversial Broad Superintendents Academy. The 2011 Fulop session was timed to occur on the eve of the board’s reorganization when a new faction more hostile to Epps was slated to take control. Other attendees of that meeting included Parents for Progress head Ellen Simon, Waterman, board member Carol Lester and then-board members-elect Carol Harrison-Arnold and Marvin Adames. Adames has since resigned and been replaced by educator Gerald Lyons. 
                          
In response to concerns Cerf’s turnaround plan might close Jersey City schools in as little as two years, the commissioner said, “Right now, that is not the plan.” But after some prodding, the commissioner conceded the scenario was still a very real possibility for some city schools if they do not shape up. Still, he tried to downplay the scenario in Jersey City, saying he was confident Lyles can develop “a strategic plan that I can believe in and the community can believe in” in trying to prevent school closures.  


                     
“I am very excited in the potential of this district under this board and with this new superintendent to make enormous strides to advance student achievement in this district,” Cerf added.

The commissioner assured residents he was flexible and would consider giving failing schools that showed demonstrable gains more than two years to straighten up before possibly locking their doors.
 
Snyder High School special education teacher Sabrina Floyd, focusing on the element of Cerf’s plan to assist schools through “regional achievement centers” placed throughout the state and staffed with education department personnel, maintained that in Jersey City, the plan will only succeed if teachers are supplied with support staff familiar with Jersey City.
 
“You need support staff who know the schools, who know the community and who want to work with the community,” Floyd said.
 
“I agree with you,” Cerf assured the teacher.

Parent Akisia Grigsby, recalling Cerf’s appearance before the school board in December 2011 to discuss the superintendent search, said his refusal to meet with the public and take comments at that time showed an insensitivity to the community.
 
“You walked out and you didn’t respect us,” complained Grigsby, who heads the city’s Parent Advocacy Group.
 
Cerf told Grigsby the board was responsible for deciding to hold the closed session and said he did meet residents before leaving.

Yet it was Cerf who sought the closed session last year to discuss issues classified as falling under personnel that pertained to the search for Epps’ successor. When the board offered Cerf the opportunity to address the public beforehand, the commissioner declined.

Cerf also declined Grigsby’s request that he meet with Jersey City parents two to four times a year given the state’s actions within the district. While Cerf did not rule out additional public meetings, he would not commit to as many as four, noting that he is ultimately responsible for some 600 schools throughout the state. 
 
Newark community activist Donna Jackson, a harsh critic of the commissioner’s full control of the Newark school system, said she went to the hearing “to fully support Jersey City parents” speaking out against state control.
 
“It doesn’t look good, Mr. Cerf, that you met with the board in closed session and didn’t meet with the public,” said Jackson, who complained that Cerf’s policies in Newark were prioritizing the needs of charter schools over public schools. The issues of the future of charter schools in Jersey City drew little discussion last night. 
 
In welcoming Cerf to the district, Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco expressed concerns over the commissioner’s policies and urged him to consider giving the district full local control more quickly than his stated four-year timeframe.
 
“I think it’s time for you to take a step back,” Greco said, urging him to allow Lyles to work with the board without direct state involvement.

Photos by Jennifer Weiss

Chris Neidenberg

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