Newark mayor says school reform top priority

March 2, 2011 4:03:54 AM PST
The mayor of New Jersey's largest city said Tuesday that remaking the Newark school system was his top priority and the most crucial aspect to the future success of the city.

In his fifth annual State of the City address, Mayor Cory Booker spoke of using philanthropic dollars and community input to recreate the Newark schools into a "portfolio of high performing options" that parents could choose from. He said he hoped to transform failing schools of all kinds into a new vision for urban education that would become a model for other U.S. cities.

"There will never be a great Newark unless there is a great public school system in our city," Booker said. "Now is not a time to vilify teachers, parents or governors past or present; now is the time that we as a people must come together, and work together for change."

The transformation of the Newark school district, the state's largest, was spurred on last year by a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The effort to improve the schools will be overseen largely by the state and city governments.

The city has been trying to match the challenge grant with additional philanthropic monies, and has raised $43 million so far.

Booker, under pressure from parents and educators angry about the lack of specifics of the plan for the schools and the dearth of information about the process, announced Tuesday that the city would start publicly disclosing donor names, donation amounts and other details of any money pledged, as well as establish a community advisory board that will be integral to the school overhaul process. He also proposed a longer school day and more control for school principals as ways to improve student performance.

"City after city has come to grips with the fact that changing a culture of failure is a hard thing to do," Booker said. "Sometimes you have to hit the 'reset' button."

Calling 2010 "the toughest budget year in nearly 70 years," Booker said the city was still facing serious challenges, including increasing costs for goods and services, pension and health care expenses. Despite a budget deficit of more than $30 million, Booker said he was planning to bring a balanced budget to the City Council that would ensure funding remained intact for critical services.

Booker talked about several companies he said were planning to bring businesses, jobs and revenue to the city. He also touted planned housing developments that he said were progressing despite the economy.

"We're going to see the cranes rising in our city, a building boom," Booker said, adding that 2011 would be Newark's "groundbreaking year."

His choicest words were reserved for the city's police union, which Booker said had been "unwilling to cooperate or concede," in a negotiation process that resulted in the city laying off 163 officers.

One of those officers, Tim Hart, 35, said he'd been laid off after four years on the force. He picketed out front of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center where Booker was giving gave his speech, handing out fliers with what he claimed were the true crime statistics in Newark that the mayor had glossed over.

"He sugar coats everything," Hart said of the mayor. "They need more cops, instead of laying off cops."

Booker said the department had been coping by reorganizing and outlined some initiatives ranging from anti-gang community outreach to job programs for those released from prison.

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