Can a school system that wastes $1 billion per year waste another $200 million?

Philip Greenspun's Weblog 2014-05-15

If you’ve been wondering “What happened to Mark Zuckerberg’s big donation to the Newark schools?”, this week’s New Yorker magazine has the answer for you: “Schooled” by Dale Russakoff.

According to Russakoff, most of the money seems to have been spent on consultants:

The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day. Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

One goal was to attract young smart people to work as teachers, but it turned out that old not-necessarily-smart people were entitled to all of the money under union contracts that required teachers be paid according to seniority.

in return for union support, the legislature left seniority protections untouched….

Zuckerberg had hoped that promising new teachers would move quickly up the pay scale, but the district couldn’t afford that along with the salaries of veteran teachers, of whom five hundred and sixty earned more than ninety-two thousand dollars a year [i.e., more than $150,000 per year including pension commitments and other benefits]. A new teacher consistently rated effective would have to work nine years before making sixty thousand dollars.

Zuckerberg’s donation attracted another $100 million in matching funds, but it was nowhere near enough:

Improbably, a district with a billion dollars in revenue and two hundred million dollars in philanthropy was going broke. Anderson announced a fifty-seven-million-dollar budget gap in March, 2013, attributing it mostly to the charter exodus. She cut more than eighteen million dollars from school budgets and laid off more than two hundred attendance counsellors, clerical workers, and janitors, most of them Newark residents with few comparable job prospects. “We’re raising the poverty level in Newark in the name of school reform,” she lamented to a group of funders. “It’s a hard thing to wrestle with.”

Did having a charismatic political superstar as mayor help?

Meanwhile, [Cory Booker] was managing a busy speaking schedule, which frequently took him out of the city. Disclosure forms show $1,327,190 in revenue for ninety-six speeches given between 2008 and May, 2013. “There’s no such thing as a rock-star mayor,” the historian Clement Price, of Rutgers University, told me. “You can be a rock star or you can be a mayor. You can’t be both.”

More: read “Schooled”