Groups linked to Booker, Cerf received nearly one-third of first $13M of Facebook donation to Newark schools
Published: Thursday, October 27, 2011, 6:30 AM Updated: Friday, October 28, 2011, 10:46 AM
The records, from the state Department of Education, are part of a spate of e-mails obtained by the Newark-based Education Law Center. They detail for the first time how the Foundation for Newark’s Future has spent the first $13 million of the $148 million donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other philanthropists to help turn around the city’s struggling public school system.
While the foundation — the group created to distribute the money — spent $7.4 million between January and September of this year on school-based programs, it has also spent $4.3 million on political and educational consultants. At least $3.9 million of the consultant spending has gone to companies and individuals with ties to Cerf and Booker, records show.
Foundation director Greg Taylor was not at the helm for any of the spending decisions made before June, but Wednesday defended the expenses as necessary and common to most start-up foundations.
"(Foundation for Newark’s Future) runs on a very lean budget so that the overwhelming majority of dollars can — and are — going to improve education for Newark’s school children," Taylor said in an e-mail. "To be clear, most of these expenses represent start-up costs and precede my arrival in June and the launch of the organization’s grant-making ... These people have extensive executive leadership, community engagement and philanthropic experience."
In July, the Education Law Center filed a request for correspondence between Cerf, Booker, officials from Start Up: Education — Zuckerberg’s national philanthropic foundation — and the Foundation for Newark’s Future. This month, the Department of Education released 49 pages of e-mails, meeting minutes and budget documents.
"What’s clear is that despite all the talk, there’s been very little real community engagement around the decisions about how these funds are being used so far," said David Sciarra, the center’s director. "Without that support from the community, these grants are going to have very little difference in improving the lives of Newark school children."
THE LARGEST GRANTS
Taken together, the classroom grants have funded four experimental high schools, an extended school day and professional development for principals and teachers, along with numerous other reform initiatives.
But the largest single grant recipient has been Global Education Advisors, the consulting company Cerf started out of his Montclair home and later divested from before taking his post in the Christie administration late last year. The group was chosen by Booker to do consulting work in Newark before Cerf was named education commissioner.
Cerf said Wednesday he has no involvement in the work being done by Global for the foundation.
"I think the documents make incredibly clear, and I hope your reporting reflects this, that I am not in these details at all," Cerf said.
Global received $1.9 million from the foundation to analyze resources and academic performance in the Newark Public Schools and make recommendations to the incoming superintendent. Previously, officials only disclosed the group’s initial $500,000 grant. Founder Rajeev Bajaj could not be reached for comment.
Global came under fire from Newark parents in late February for drafting a plan to close and consolidate some failing city schools and lease district facilities to charter schools.
Asked about the expenditures, Cerf cited the important role consultants can play in crafting education policy.
"What is a consultant?" Cerf asked. "Is a person not on the payroll, but working for a superintendent, a consultant?"
He added that his past relation-ship with Global has nothing to do with the work it has done for the foundation.
“Knowing people is not the same as directing them, knowing the particulars of their budget or actions, or anything of the like,” Cerf said.
In one of the e-mails released earlier this month, Cerf praised his former company for its work in recommending reform and helping with the transition between superintendents.
The Education Law Center received no e-mails in February and March of this year, when Global Education Advisors was being scrutinized by community members in Newark.
The second biggest recipient of the Facebook money is Tusk Strategies, a New York political consulting firm that managed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 re-election campaign. Cerf left his post as a deputy education chancellor in Bloomberg’s administration to serve on the campaign.
Calls to Tusk were not returned, but according to founder Bradley Tusk’s online biography, the group was responsible for creating and advising PENewark, the heavily-criticized campaign to gather public input on the school reform effort in Newark.
When PENewark first began its work last November, Booker said only $1 million would be spent on the effort — roughly $500,000 for salaries and $500,000 for advertising. Tusk was paid more than $1.5 million between October 2010 and April 2011, according to the e-mails. Taylor said Wednesday the cost of the PENewark initiative was $2 million.
Bari Mattes, Booker’s long-time fundraiser, was paid $120,000 to help launch the foundation and recruit its leadership. De’Shawn Wright, the mayor’s then-education adviser, was paid $94,500 "to develop a strategy for accepting Mark Zuckerberg’s generous gift and to support Bari’s work," Taylor said. Neither is still under contract with the group and neither could be reached for comment.
Since the money was donated, there have been constant calls for greater transparency, including by the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit to obtain records of Booker’s correspondence about the grant.
In an e-mail to Cerf, Booker and others in March, Shavar Jeffries, then chairman of Newark’s advisory school board, expressed a sentiment oft repeated among local community members: Who decides how to spend the donated funds?
"I’d like to know how funding decisions are being made, who’s at the table when they’re being made, and how all of this is tied into district decision-making and planning," Jeffries wrote. "This remains a black hole to me, and thus I suspect everyone."
By David Giambusso and Jessica Calefati/The Star-Ledger
Staff writer Jeanette Rundquist contributed to this report.