Donation push meets $100M goal for Newark schools, sources say

The donations will cap a more-than-two-year quest to answer the young billionaire’s challenge, which stipulated that the city could only access his funds once other donors matched the gift. The gifts, however, are not finalized.

“Raising the money is critical, but what the money accomplishes is what matters,” said Derrell Bradford, executive director of Better Education for Kids, a school reform advocacy group.

Among the donors courted are billionaires Kenneth Langone, Stanley Druckenmiller, Julian Robertson, Doris Fisher and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as the Walton Family Foundation, who are expected to donate millions of dollars each, said three sources who stressed that the paperwork for the gifts was not complete.

Spokesmen for the Walton Family Foundation and Julian Robertson declined to comment. Phone calls to the other donors’ homes and offices were not returned.

The sources, who are all familiar with the fundraising process, requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the donations.

Greg Taylor, CEO of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, said the group has been dedicated to securing donors to finance the organization’s priorities, which include increasing the number of school options for children, ensuring all children have access to quality early education and investing in teacher development.

“We are confident these funders ultimately will meet the match challenge established by Mark Zuckerberg when he made his original investment. Today, however, we have no news. When we do, I look forward to sharing it with the Newark community,” he said.

All of the latest donors have been involved in education reform.

Langone and Druckenmiller sit on the board of Harlem Children’s Zone. Together, the men are worth more than $4 billion, according to Forbes Magazine’s list of the 400 Richest Americans.

Bloomberg made school reform one of his top mayoral priorities in New York, where he worked with Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson. Both are former employees of the New York City Department of Education.

Robertson, Fisher and the Walton foundation donated to the Newark Charter School Fund in 2008. Fund CEO Mashea Ashton persuaded them to give again to increase the number of high-quality charter schools in Newark, several of the sources said. Ashton said yesterday it is too early to comment on the fundraising.

“I’m grateful to everyone who has donated to the fund, but there is a misperception that money will fix the city’s problems,” said state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex). “People forget how much money has already been invested in Newark schools, but hopefully this money will be invested to try and do things differently.”

The money is expected to support the city’s growing charter-school sector and fund the landmark teacher contract that will offer bonuses to top performers for the first time in state history, several sources said. Some money already spent has funded new high schools and leadership training for principals.

Officials from the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, Newark Public Schools, the state Department of Education, and Zuckerberg’s philanthropy all declined to comment on the gifts.

Zuckerberg’s original donation was the subject of national publicity and ceremony when he announced his plans in September 2010 on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” beside Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Gov. Chris Christie.

A flurry of big matching donations quickly followed.

In June 2012, the city was still $50 million short of the $100 million goal.

Interviews with donors and grant recipients at the time revealed that potential donors were weary of investing in the school district, which has been plagued by financial scandals and poor academic performance for three decades. Once teachers ratified the city’s progressive teacher contract, prospective donors’ opinions began to shift, four of the sources said.

The Foundation for Newark’s Future is expected to announce all of the new gifts publicly in the coming weeks.

Star-Ledger staff writer David Giambusso contributed to this report.

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