October 27, 2011; Newark Star-Ledger | The New Jersey Star Ledger reports that one out of every three dollars of private money spent to date in Newark’s effort to reform its schools has gone to consultants and contractors, many with ties toMayor Cory Booker and acting state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. The grants have been allocated through the Foundation for Newark’s Future, which is overseeing distribution of the $148 million donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other donors committed to improving Newark’s struggling schools.

Records show that the while the foundation has allocated $7.4 million to school-based programs, it’s also spent $4.3 million for 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,” the Star-Ledger asserts. The largest single grant recipient has been Global Education Advisors, the consulting company Cerf started and later divested from before taking his post in the Christie administration late last year. 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. On Wednesday, October 26, Cerf said “he has no involvement in the work being done” by these organizations for the foundation.”

Foundation director Greg Taylor, whose appointment came after the expenses were approved, defended them as “necessary and common” to most start-up organizations, and underscored the recipients’ “extensive leadership, community engagement and philanthropic experience.” This latest announcement, however, has raised questions about where the public involvement is when it comes to decisions about where funding is allocated. A recent Star-Ledger story charged that Newark community parents and other residents, who were promised a seat at the table in decisions about how funds would be allocated to public schools, have been left out of the process. According to David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center—an advocacy center focused on education equity for New Jersey schoolchildren—“. . . despite all the talk, there’s been very little real community engagement around the decisions about how these funds are being used so far. . . . Without that support from the community, these grants are going to have very little difference in improving the lives of Newark school children.”

Others agree, calling for “more transparency” around the grantmaking process, including the ACLU, which has filed suit to obtain records of the mayor’s correspondence around the grants. Shavar Jefferies, then chair of Newark’s advisory school board, has also sent e-mails to Cerf, Booker, and others, “expressing a sentiment oft repeated among local community members: Who decides how to spend the donated funds?” As Jeffries wrote, “”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 . . . This remains a black hole to me, and thus I suspect, everyone.”

While some may argue that private money doesn’t require public involvement, others believe differently, particularly when it comes to making decisions about inherently public institutions such as schools, especially those located in distressed communities. As the lines continue to blur between officials elected by the larger public to serve their interests and wealthy philanthropists, questions continue to emerge as to whose interests will ultimately take precedence. With the days of closed-door decision making rapidly dwindling, thanks to the advent of an internet-driven culture that thrives on transparency, those questions may have to be answered sooner rather than later.—CMG