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Christie Admin Lashes Out at Charter School Critics, Suspends Five Newark Principals

H. Grady James - too successful?At Newark's Hawthorne Avenue School, the test scores are up, higher than state-imposed goals and certainly better than those of the highly touted "Renew" schools favored by the administration. The hallways are quiet. Teachers and administrators get along. And this was all done despite central office's stripping away of faculty resources and shameful neglect of the building. So, in the crazy, bullying logic of Gov. Chris Christie's administration of city schools, it was time to suspend the school's successful principal, H. Grady James. He was just too good to be allowed to stay.

Time to suspend him and to try to smear his reputation by saying he was involved in some sort of "incident" now under "investigation." The "incident" was a community meeting at the Hopewell Baptist Church last Wednesday where he spoke, praising the efforts of his students, teachers and parents.

James was one of five principals indefinitely suspended in one day by Cami Anderson, Christie's agent in Newark. The others were Tony Motley, Bragaw Avenue School; Dorothy Handfield, Belmont-Runyon School; Deneen Washington, Maple Avenue School, and Lisa Brown, Ivy Hill School.

Dorothy HandfieldFour of the principals — James, Motley, Handfield, and Washington — had spoken at the community meeting two days earlier. They tried to answer questions from local residents worried about what would happen to their children as Anderson moves toward a wholesale transfer of public school assets to the KIPP Schools, a charter organization that operates TEAM Academy Charter Schools. Questions Anderson wasn't answering. See and hear what they said here.

Shortly before noon Friday, the four were ordered to show up at district headquarters at 2 Cedar Street and handed letters by Vanessa Rodriguez, the district's "chief talent office."  The letter states:

 

Tony Motley"Please be advised that an investigation has been launched regarding an incident that occurred on or about January 15, 2014. As a result, you have been placed  on suspension effective immediately. You are not to report to any Newark Public School facility until further notice."

An incident? Since when is an open public meeting an "incident"? An "investigation"? It was videotaped and witnessed by hundreds of people.

The principals were individually called in and ordered to hand over their keys and their email was instantly blocked. Dennis McKeever, an attorney for the administrators' union CASA, was present.

Brown did not speak at the community forum and was not handed the letter received by the others. Sources at CASA say she had other differences with Anderson. They also said she could not report to 2 Cedar Street yesterday because of an unspecified emergency.

(Update:)  Brown was suspended because she supported the school's PTSA president, Daryn Martin. Anderson stripped Martin of his office and banned him from setting foot in his children's school. A security officer handed him the letter banning him as Martin stood on the sidewalk outside the school.

Newark councilman Ras Baraka, a candidate for mayor — and the only candidate who is opposing Anderson's privatization plans — has called for her immediate resignation. He hosted the community meeting at which the four principals spoke.

Deneen WashingtonAnderson's crackdown on criticism of her plans to radically transform the Newark schools was unprecedented. Never in the modern history of the Newark schools — certainly not in the 50 years I have been writing about them — has a school superintendent suspended so many administrators at one time. And never has a central administration resorted to political retribution for dissent so swiftly and so harshly.

But a lot is on the line. Christie's reputation as a "reformer." Anderson's job. The future of KIPP Schools and the millions it is investing in Newark real estate.

It comes at a critical time for the Christie regime. Bridgegate has tarnished the reputation of the man who has presidential ambitions and the Legislature has begun a massive investigation — a real investigation of a real incident. His office also is under investigation for misusing public money meant for rebuilding parts of New Jersey damaged by Superstorm Sandy. A lawsuit alleging the governor used the state Attorney General's office to quash indictments against political allies in Hunterdon County is making its way through the courts.

One of the leading candidates for mayor in the city, Ras Baraka, has campaigned against the Anderson plan — and the Legislature is considering a bill that, supporters say, could stop the city from closing schools.

Desperate times at 2 Cedar Street. And, apparently, Anderson believed desperate times called for desperate measures.

TEAM Academy has been amassing tens of millions of dollars — much of it from taxpayer-funded sources like the state Economic Development Authority (EDA) — to buy up and renovate public school buildings as the Christie administration moves to turn much of Newark into a charter school district. It was done in New Orleans and Newark already is well on its way. The EDA is headed by close Christie associate Michele Brown. Until recently, Tim Carden, a former business partner of state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, also was a member of the EDA board — and Carden is head of several corporations raising money for TEAM Academy Charter Schools.

The schools represented by the suspended principals are slated to be part of the Anderson/KIPP scheme, called "One Newark" by Anderson.

James was suspended just hours after hundreds of Hawthorne Avenue parents staged an early morning rally to show support for their school, slated to become part of the charter domination of the city.

"We were shocked to learn Mr. James had been suspended,'' said Grace Sergio, head of the school's PTSA. "It's clearly part of the effort to silence any criticism of the plan to close our school and neighborhood schools throughout the area.''

The closing down of public schools and the simultaneous opening of charters in their place  is an apparent effort to give TEAM Academy an entire swath of Newark's South Ward. It will showcase what the privatized regime-with resources denied to the public schools-can do for the city.

Lisa BrownThe process already has begun with the so-called "universal application"  that Newark families have been told to fill out to determine which school their children will attend in the fall.

Sergio says parents will refuse to participate in the procedure.

"This is our school, our neighborhood, our community," she says. "We are staying here.''

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