Friday, July 27, 2012

Five Hours Of My Life I Can't Get Back; The Cerf Nomination Hearing

Below is the testimony I prepared and (sort of) delivered for the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the nomination of Commissioner Chris Cerf.  Senator Doherty went on for what seemed like an ETERNITY (Check out Jersey Jazzman's timeline - it was at least 40 minutes of the five hour ordeal) but the five citizens that testified had their microphones abruptly turned off at exactly the three minute mark.  

It felt a bit hostile and unnecessary.  

Sitting in the room during the questioning it was hard not to notice how perfunctory it all felt.  Yes, yes, here is the question I should ask about (fill in creepy thing Cerf has done here).  But there was no probing.  No real challenge.  No teeth.  

Oh, except on his residency.  Senator Scutari really dug his heels in on that one.  

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the committee chairman, said Cerf’s answers about his residency nearly kept him from voting to affirm the nomination. Scutari said Cerf may have perpetrated "something like fraud" by not being truthful about his motivation to move.
Earlier this year, Cerf rented an apartment in Somerset County that is closer to his job in Trenton than the home he shares with his wife and children in Montclair. Cerf said he rented the apartment in Montgomery because the area was "charming" and the rent was "reasonable."
Scutari said he didn’t buy it.
He said the committee should be "insulted" by Cerf’s deception. The real reason for Cerf’s move, he said, was a need to get out of Essex County because of Rice’s decision to block the nomination. The unwritten senatorial courtesy rule allows senators to block gubernatorial appointees who reside in the counties the lawmakers serve.
"If you had sat down and said ‘I moved because of Senate rules or senatorial courtesy or Senator Rice and I had to get a residence somewhere else,’ that’s one thing," Scutari said. "For you to sit here and tell us you moved to be closer to work when you have a driver, I cannot accept that answer."
I could give you a couple dozen answers he gave that were just as disingenuous.  Many of the Senators just skimmed the surface on substantive issues like Christie and Cerf's back handed attempt to change the funding formula through the budget, the drastic change in Newark's QSAC scores, the approval of virtual charter schools without any authority to do so, and on, and on, and on.
In one of the many in-depth pieces Jersey Jazzman did leading up to the confirmation hearing (if you haven't read them yet, you should) he pointed to this quote from Cerf:
This is a knife fight in a dark room.  We haven't shown courage & we've been nibbling at the edges
To me it felt like the Senators knew they had already been bested in that knife fight before they took their seats at the hearing, and despite all the very real issues with Cerf (his extensive for-profit, Broad-ified background for example) they had no choice but to approve his nomination.  Clearly, this was a done deal and clearly no question asked or answer given was going to change the outcome.  

I suppose it is supposed to comfort the parents of New Jersey that Cerf says he is "not going to do anything but what's right for kids."  I honestly wonder what he thinks parents like me are trying to do when we run into the brick wall that is his NJDOE?  

Well, at least I got to say my peace.  Three minutes worth anyway...

Darcie Cimarusti

Chris Cerf Nomination Hearing 
Senate Judiciary Committee
  Good Morning Senators.  My name is Darcie Cimarusti, and I would like to take a few minutes of your time to relate my own personal experience with the New Jersey Department Of Education, and what I think it means about the nominee before you today.
I am the mother of two students in Highland Park Public Schools, and in March of 2011 I became an active member of a group of concerned parents and residents who were opposed to the approval of the Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter School.  When I began volunteering my time, I had no way to know what I was in for.
I don’t want to bore you with too many of the details of my story; you have much to consider today.  But I came here today to let you know that my story boils down to one simple truth; traditional public school districts and parents have NO VOICE in Acting Commissioner Cerf’s Department of Education. 
Districts are given the opportunity to respond to applications, but their responses are summarily ignored and disregarded.  The opposition of a traditional public school district is written off as the keepers of the status quo resisting competition, innovation, and change. 
And parents that support their public schools and don’t want to see them dismantled one charter at a time have no voice whatsoever. 
The only way I was able to give voice to my community, and the other communities that would have been affected by the application, was to relentlessly pursue the press, because our cries fell on deaf ears at the NJDOE.   We submitted multiple binders filled with analyses of the applications, letters of opposition from hundreds of parents and residents, and petition signatures from thousands more. 
But none of it mattered.  We were ignored, and the applicants were not only encouraged to reapply, they were given assistance to improve their application. 
Which is why we not only aggressively pursued the press, we held a Town Hall meeting, and organized the “Occupy the DOE” protest with concerned parents from across the state. 
Yet STILL we were ignored.  Other than for an occasional snarky quip from an NJDOE press secretary about how community input is carefully considered in the application process, we were stonewalled.
This is why I am here today.  I hope that my experience with Acting Commissioner Cerf’s DOE illuminates for you the need for Chris Cerf, whether he has the “Acting” before his title or not, to be accountable to ALL stakeholders in this state.  And that includes the parents of traditional public school students who are trying desperately to defend our schools against unwanted and unneeded reforms.
The Acting Commissioner’s charter agenda has been outright rejected by the parents in this state who are proud of the world-class education our children are receiving. 
But it is crucial to remember that these same reforms that have been rejected in suburb after suburb are no less troublesome in our urban districts.  While reform is certainly needed in many of our struggling districts, the supposed shining examples of successful charters are simply not replicable for all students. 
They do not and will not serve the majority of our state’s most vulnerable students.  Instead, they will effectively defund their traditional public schools, leaving them trapped in unsafe facilities with too few resources, including too few teachers, who are increasingly forced to narrow curriculum to teach to standardized tests, in a vain attempt to avoid the devastating consequences that come with being labeled a Priority or Focus school.  
In Highland Park we were incredibly lucky that our determination and steadfast resolve to speak up for our traditional public schools paid off.  Education columnist Michael Winerip ultimately told our story in the New York Times, and with his weight behind us we were finally granted a meeting and were able to tell our story directly to the NJDOE.  The application was denied for a fourth time, and as of today the applicants have not reapplied. 
Pressure from communities like Highland Park, Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Montclair, and Teaneck have pushed Acting Commissioner Cerf’s charter agenda out of the suburbs, at least for now.  Without local democratic control, the push for reform in places like Camden, Newark, Paterson, and Perth Amboy is no less dangerous.  Parents and teachers in those districts MUST have a voice in what happens to their schools.  No one knows the needs of a community better than the people who live and work there. 
Acting Commissioner Cerf and his NJDOE must start listening to local voices in these communities.   And if they will not, it is the responsibility of this legislature to compel them to do so on our behalf. 
Parents just like me from across the state are coming together to support and learn from each other.  We are growing in numbers and we are not backing down.  We will continue to demand a seat at the table when decisions are being made about our children’s education. 

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