POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 25, 2010
NEWARK, N.J. » Just two months ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was at a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, and found himself seated at dinner with Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Booker, a charismatic, 41-year-old former Stanford football player, regaled the other guests around the table with stories about how he had moved into one of his crime-ridden city's most dangerous neighborhoods and rode along with police on late-night patrols.
"It's the kind of personal and real dedication that you get from real leaders," Zuckerberg recalled. "It just made me think this is a guy I want to invest in."
Yesterday, Zuckerberg did just that.
The 26-year-old Internet tycoon, with a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.9 billion, made his first major charitable donation, pledging $100 million over the next five years to help Newark's struggling schools, which are in such sad shape that they were taken over by the state in the 1990s.
Zuckerberg made the announcement on Oprah Winfrey's show, where he was joined by the Democratic mayor and New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
"I believe in these guys, right?" the Harvard dropout told Winfrey as he sat in sneakers, T-shirt and jacket with the two suit-and-tie-clad politicians.
Zuckerberg has no other connection to Newark; he grew up in suburban New York and attended prep school in New Hampshire.
As part of the deal, Christie agreed to hand over responsibility for improving the schools to Booker. And Booker, who helped dramatically reduce violent crime in his desperately poor city of 280,000 with the aid of cameras and other police equipment paid for with donated money, said he will try to raise an additional $150 million.
Zuckerberg said he does not expect to spend much time in Newark. "I also spend all of my time running a company," he said. Instead, he is leaving it to Christie and Booker to oversee the gift.
Christie and Booker pledged fundamental change but offered no specifics. Booker said he would start meeting with Newark residents to figure out how to use the money. He said it could go to both traditional public schools and charter schools.
"I'm putting everything on the line when it comes to my energy, my resources, my relationships and, frankly, my career," the mayor said. "We've got to show achievement within a number of years."
The Newark school system has been plagued by low test scores, high dropout rates and crumbling buildings. Education experts will be watching closely to see whether the money makes a difference in a district that already spends nearly $24,000 a year — more than twice the national average — on each of its 40,000 students.