Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Now Cerf Changes His Tune On Newark Education Auditing Business

Chris Cerf didn't want the Newark Star Ledger to publish the story that Newark Mayor Cory Booker hired an education reform firm started by Chris Cerf back in May 2010 that STILL operates out of Cerf's house in Montclair, New Jersey, because "Cerf did not think it was very important."

Booker could not say how much money the city of Newark has paid Cerf's firm or where the money came from - only that it was raised from outside donations.

Cerf maintained that nothing illicit or unethical was going on with this, that he had no ties to the firm anymore and had cut his ties right before he got named to permanently replace former NJ Education Commissioner Bret Schundler as the state's top education official.

Now the Newark Star Ledger says Cerf has "revised" his story just one day after saying that the story wasn't important at all and the paper shouldn't publish it.

This story IS an important one and so I post nearly all of it:

A controversial consultant’s report recommending that some of Newark’s worst public schools be replaced with charter schools was funded by a $500,000 grant from a California educational foundation at the behest of Mayor Cory Booker.

The revelation came in an interview with officials at the foundation late Wednesday. It followed two days in which the mayor declined to provide details about the report: who funded it or the amount spent on it.

Contacted by the Star-Ledger, the spokeswoman for the Broad Foundation in Los Angeles readily acknowledged it put up the money that was used to retain Global Education Advisors to conduct an audit of the city’s schools. The spokeswoman said she wondered why the grant was kept secret.

The consulting firm, incorporated by Christopher D. Cerf before he was named the state’s acting education commissioner, has itself become the focus of growing questions over its ties to the commissioner and the mysterious way it was selected.

The grant disclosure came on a day when there were several developments in the mystery of Global Advisors.

The acting commissioner gave a revised account of his ties to the firm — acknowledging he had been more involved than he first indicated earlier this week. Cerf had first maintained he had done little more than lend his address for the incorporation papers.

State campaign finance records also show Cerf gave a $1,000 contribution to the re-election campaign of Booker just a month before Global Education Advisors was incorporated by Cerf.

Cerf says his motives have been mischaracterized.

"This was entirely driven by an impulse and my desire to support Newark public schools as they move toward reform.

At issue are concerns some have raised over whether Cerf would be conflicted as commissioner by his connections to a firm whose recommendations he may have helped draft or inspire. If implemented, the proposals call for closing or consolidating several Newark schools whose students continue to fail year after year, replacing them with charter schools and some new district schools throughout the city. Critics say because of the ties, Cerf could end up being on both ends of the reform process in Newark: The company founded by Cerf the reformer makes proposals that are then approved by Cerf the commissioner.

The continuing questions and new revelations about the ties between Cerf, his former consulting firm, and the mayor — drawn from state campaign finance reports and interviews with city advisory board officials and others — came as parents and educators continued to rally against the recommendations that would remake the city’s school system.

Cerf said Wednesday there was no conflict with his involvement with Global Education Advisors, or his support of Booker, and reiterated that he severed his connections as soon as he was nominated.

A spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie said Cerf fully disclosed his ties to Global Education Advisors and described his involvement to the governor’s office.

"He explained it to us during the vetting process and that he would be ending the association. We were completely satisfied by that," said the spokesman, Michael Drewniak. "It has no conflict with his nomination to be education commissioner."

However, Cerf’s public explanations varied from earlier statements just a day earlier, when he said he had done little more than lend his address for the incorporation papers.

He said Wednesday he had been involved more directly with the company during a brief period around Thanksgiving when it began working on an analysis that would count enrollment, facilities and student achievement. Cerf said the work did not begin in earnest until around December.

"Several weeks later I resigned," he noted. He was nominated for commissioner on Dec. 20.

Until then, he said his role was simply to conduct fact-based studies of the Newark Public Schools. He added that he had no role in drafting the recommendations that have generated so much concern by parents and educators.

"I never even saw it until a few days ago," he said.

He called his campaign contribution to Booker neither improper or unusual, adding that he had also contributed money to the school board campaign of Shavar Jeffries.

Newark school board officials said it was clear to them that Cerf was involved more deeply in the company before his departure. Advisory Board Vice Chairwoman Barbara King said the board’s leadership only became aware of Global Education Advisors and their work in the district after that work had begun, and they had a sit-down meeting with Cerf and Rajeev Bajaj, who now runs the consulting firm.

King also said she and Jeffries fought for face time with the consultants after learning of their mission.

"Everything was kept in secret," she complained. "We never knew about these schools that would close. If we had known, we could have involved the community. No one wants to learn things after the fact."

When they met in November, King said the consultants told the board members they were doing no more than gathering diagnostic data about the school district.

Booker yesterday again said he did not know how much Global Education Advisors was paid to do consulting work, although he said he looked at several different firms and settled on Bajaj because he had consulted with Newark in the past.

"We didn’t want to go with someone who was starting from scratch," Booker said.

The mayor confirmed that the grant money came from Broad but declined to say who was in charge of contracting the consulting firm, though he said it was not him. However, the Broad Foundation said the money was channeled to the Foundation for Newark’s Future, the nonprofit created to raise $100 million to match Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerbeg’s gift to the city.

"We were in conversations for months about how we could help leaders in Newark, and we were asked if we could support an audit of the district," said spokeswoman Erica Lepping. "The purpose is to make sure local leaders have a factual basis for making decisions about reform."

Lepping said Global Education Advisors had been selected by the Foundation for Newark’s Future, but could not say on what grounds the consultants were selected.

Wow - so much to parse here.

First, the governor has already been called a liar by the former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler over the Race to the Top mess last year that ultimately cost Schundler his job.

So we shouldn't believe ANYTHING Christie or his office says about Cerf disclosing his ties to Global Education Advisors BEFORE Christie tapped Cerf for the commissioner's job.

Christie MUST provide proof that Cerf disclosed that information to the governor before Cerf was named.

If Christie is unable to provide that proof, then he MUST explain why his office said that Cerf had disclosed the extent of his relationship with the education reform firm.

That's the first thing here.

The next thing is, Booker MUST explain publicly how it is that Cerf's firm got hired to do this business in the first place. Perhaps Booker has legitimate and good reasons for it, but he MUST state what those reasons were. Also, he MUST state publicly who signed off on giving Global Education Advisors the contract.

Booker says he didn't hire Cerf's firm.

Okay, so who did?

And why was the process kept so secret? Why weren't education officials in Newark told that Cerf's firm was doing the auditing work?

Next, Cerf has lots of explaining to do over this:

Let's start with why he revised the story of his relationship with Global Education Advisors after first telling the Newark Star Ledger he no longer had any meaningful contact with them and was only lending his home address to them so that they had a NJ mailing address to use for business.

Now Cerf says he actually was involved in doing business for the firm right through December of 2010.

Why the change in story, Chris?

Or, as we used to say in Catholic School back in the day, why did you lie when they first caught you?

Next, what contacts have you had with officials in Newark from the time you first incorporated Global Education Advisors to now? Who did you talk to, what did you say to them, and what did they say in return? Who hired your firm and how did that decision get made?

Finally, explain why it is that you see nothing wrong with Newark hiring an education reform company that is STILL run out of your house that you were working for as late as December 2010 to do education reform business with Newark that YOU will have to approve as education commissioner?

At best, these circumstances constitute a pretty big conflict of interest.

At worst, they constitute criminal activity and jail time.

This is egregious stuff going on here in the New Jersey reform business.

Christie, Booker and Cerf have LOTS to answer for here.

Going forward, here is what should be done:

Cerf, caught in a lie about his relationship to Global Education Advisors, will have resign his post as NJ Education Commissioner before he even takes over.

It is NOT okay to have a liar, a cheat and a criminal running the NJ education department.

Next, Booker MUST disclose all the contacts either he or people in his administration have had over the Global Education Advisors business.

There is something fishy here too and until Booker adequately explains who hired Cerf's firm and why the process was kept so secretive, we MUST assume Booker is HIDING SOMETHING.

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