State lawmaker intervened in Newark’s superintendent search, its first under local control

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    By Patrick Wall

    Newark’s recent search for a new superintendent was designed to be free from political interference. Then a state lawmaker got involved.

    State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Newark native and one of the city’s North Ward powerbrokers, pressured state officials to remove a state-appointed member of the superintendent search committee, according to a person with direct knowledge of the request. The member was removed and replaced with someone with North Ward connections.

    Later, after the search committee chose three finalists, as required by state guidelines, Ruiz called the state education commissioner to demand that a fourth superintendent candidate be added to the list, according to a person told about the call. The chair of the Newark school board, who also has North Ward political ties, made the same request in an email. In response, the commissioner agreed to amend the state guidelines, intended to safeguard against meddling, to allow a fourth candidate.

    A few weeks later, the board voted for the new superintendent: Roger León, a longtime Newark educator and administrator backed by Ruiz.

    “Congratulations to Roger Leon on his appointment as the Superintendent for Newark Public Schools,” Ruiz wrote on Facebook. “His life’s work has been dedicated to our children.”

    The board’s vote last month was an historic occasion — the first time it chose the city’s schools chief since the 1990s, when the state seized control of the district due to corruption and poor performance. Because of the significance of the superintendent selection, both practically and symbolically, state officials included step-by-step instructions for the search in the plan they created to guide the district’s transition back to local control of the schools.

    But Ruiz’s backchannel involvement in the process shows how easily those guardrails were cleared as people who weren’t technically part of the search sought to influence its outcome.

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