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Est. April 5, 2002
April 14, 2016 - Issue 649

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Connecting the Dots
Trenton Citizens and the Cartel
In Hand-to-Hand Combat
Part XIX

"Trenton residents raised a firestorm of protest:
vigorously complaining about the lack of
ransparency in the search process; protesting
the proposed layoffs of more than 100 special
needs population personnel; opposing the
continuing Broad influence in the Trenton Public
Schools (TPS); and criticizing the Mayor’s double-cross
after he ran on a pro-public education platform."

As noted in last week’s column, the Cartel for corporate education reform descended on the Trenton, New Jersey Public Schools with two handpicked Broad candidates as finalists for superintendent. Mayor Eric Jackson, who appoints the school board, survived hard-fought primary and general elections against Cartel-backed candidates in 2014; he came in first in the primary and defeated the runner-up, Paul Perez, in the runoff. Neither victory would have occurred without Jackson’s strong support from the Trenton Education Association (TEA) that rallied a cross-section of parents, clergy, and the broader community to endorse his campaign.

I journeyed to Trenton earlier this week to observe and participate in the community push back firsthand. During my visit, I interviewed numerous individuals and gave a presentation on the national Broad assault on public schools at a forum designed to deal with the situation.

After taking office, Mayor Jackson re-appointed Jason Redd (who raised funds for the Mayor’s campaign) and is Counsel for governmental affairs and a lobbyist for the Gibbons Law Firm. He works closely with nonprofit and corporate clients promoting school choice and public school privatization (he was initially appointed to the Board by former Mayor Tony Mack). A former chief of staff to the New Jersey Senate Education Committee Chair, and a close ally of David Hespe, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education NJDOE), and Gov. Christie, Redd has connections to a wide range of corporate education reformers.

He masterminded the selection of the superintendent search firm, a one-man operation (whose principal, Bill Adams, worked for the group that recruited the previous Broad superintendent). Adams allegedly conducted a so-called national search, which yielded only 34 candidates, and came up with two blemished finalists aligned with the Broad Superintendents Academy who had been terminated from their previous superintendent positions. Working with Mayor Jackson (who also received Cartel campaign contributions) and Gerald Truehart, the Board Vice President and a pro-charter proponent, the three united to hoodwink the Trenton community by selecting frontrunners that should have been rejected from further consideration with a simple google background check.

Since they operated in the deepest secrecy, TEA and the Trenton community only became aware of the finalists a week before the Board was scheduled to make its final choice. At that point, the public via a cursory google search (noted above) found that the two were sent packing from their most recent positions for behavior that bordered on criminality. With these findings, Trenton residents raised a firestorm of protest: vigorously complaining about the lack of transparency in the search process; protesting the proposed layoffs of more than 100 special needs population personnel; opposing the continuing Broad influence in the Trenton Public Schools (TPS); and criticizing the Mayor’s double-cross after he ran on a pro-public education platform.

City Council members Marge Caldwell-Wilson, Phyllis Holly-Ward, and Alex Bethea (a retired TPS vice principal) called a press conference to denounce the budget cuts, layoffs, and the superintendent finalists. At that point, parents, the Trenton Paraprofessional Association (TPA), and the larger community became intensely engaged in stopping the district staff dismissals and abandoning the superintendent search process.

Last weekend, Mayor Jackson, Jason Redd, Trenton School Board President, and Board Vice President Gerald Truehart caucused to develop a response to the community unrest. Truehart’s earlier job as TPS’s Assistant Business Administrator was eliminated in a reorganization of the department (for supposedly poor performance). Many have concluded that he has held a grudge against other district employees since that time. Subsequent to holding that position, he worked as business manager for a charter school, and Truehart has held marginal employment since that time.

The three of them concluded that the crisis had to be resolved and that since TEA and TPA were unwilling to go along with the appointment of either finalist for superintendent or the layoff rationalizations, and had united parents and the community to get behind their efforts, they needed to end the current pursuit of a new TPS superintendent. The three amigos hoped that this concession would tamp down the controversy and allow them to proceed with the terminations of the more than 100 special education staff members.

Thus, Mayor Jackson and Jason Redd, President of the Trenton Board of Education, sent out a joint media announcement on Friday, April 9th, for a 9:00 am press conference on Monday, April 11th, stating that they would address the status of the superintendent search. At the press conference, they announced the halting of the quest for a new superintendent and the revocation of the 5:30pm Monday afternoon meeting that had been arranged to announce the choice.

But to their surprise and dismay, the teachers’ union president, Naomi Johnson-Lafluer, declared that she would proceed with the meeting due to the number of citizens who had registered to attend and to use it as a forum to discuss the issues. Behind the scenes, Mayor Jackson ordered Jason Redd not to sign the form allowing the debate to be held at the school board building. Redd then directed the district’s business administrator, Jayne Howard, to issue the bad news to Johnson-Lafluer. She and the TEA grievance chair, Janice Williams, sprang into action and exerted such pressure on the Mayor that he had to capitulate to TEA’s demand a second time.

The meeting went on as intended with more than 200 people packing the room. Parents, teachers, clergy, union members, and others spoke out passionately about the need to retain employees proposed to be terminated and the deceptiveness of the search process. Numerous parents also praised the work of special needs staff with their children at their side. In addition, several parents, community, and union members called for the school board leader, Jason Redd, to resign. And the unity across the disparate groups was clearly evident.

The Mayor and the Board made a serious political miscalculation in their decision-making in this instance. In confidential interviews with community leaders and elected officials, several indicated that they were monitoring the fallout for Mayor Jackson and weighing whether they would challenge him in his reelection bid. His former opponent, Paul Perez, has already begun building a serious campaign apparatus and war chest. He is also pressing the flesh in every sector of Trenton. This recent political gaffe could provide Perez and others the opening that they need.

Mayor Jackson is in a “heap of trouble” as he approaches his next campaign. If he goes through with the layoffs, he may have political hell to pay. His final judgment in this matter is being anxiously awaited by his possible opponents.

Click here for links to all parts of this series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has appeared on the Today Show with Matt Lauer and National Public Radio’s The Connection to discuss public school privatization, and he has lectured to parent, teacher, and union groups throughout the nation. Contact Dr. Farrell. 

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