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As Newark Battles School Takeover in Court, Is Camden Next?

After eight months, Camden has addressed some of Cerf's concerns, but is it too little too late?

Close to 25 years ago, New Jersey was the first state in the country to take over a local school district. Yet time has done little to calm the arguments -- or the tensions -- surrounding what was then an unprecedented move.

Case in point: The local school board in Newark is proceeding with its legal challenge against the Christie administration over state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s decision last year to maintain full control, despite some signs of improvement in the state’s own evaluation of the district.

But Newark may be just one of the theaters where argument over state control is playing out, with Camden schools now on the threshold of seeing greater state intervention as well.

In a letter to the Camden board last August, Cerf said he would give it eight months to meet a set of goals, including progress toward hiring a new superintendent. Eight months are up in a week, and all indications are the administration is ready to step up its role.

Gov. Chris Christie scheduled to be at Camden’s Woodrow Wilson High School this morning, and while neither his office nor Cerf would comment on the nature of the visit, Philly.com and the Wall Street Journal cited unnamed sources saying he will call for greater state role.

Local community and board leaders said they heard the speculation, too, and were waiting for the details.

“There are so many rumors, some takeover, some partial takeover, maybe vouchers or his own board or superintendent,” said Kathryn Blackshear, the board’s president. “They haven’t reached out, or told us anything as yet.”

She said the board was invited to the event by Mayor Dana Redd. It comes two days after the board spent Saturday interviewing candidates for the superintendent position. “I don’t know what will happen with that tomorrow,” Blackshear said.

The board also last week gave final approval of five new Renaissance Schools under the Urban Hope Act, another one of Cerf’s conditions.

When asked what would be the board’s response, Blackshear cited the state’s powers and control of its budget, funding close to 90 percent of the total. “The governor controls our budget, what can we do?” she said.

Still, the rules are different now than when New Jersey took over Jersey City schools in 1989, and followed up with Paterson and Newark in 1991 and 1995, respectively. At that point, the state was authorized to abolish the locally elected board and install its own superintendent.

A law enacted seven years ago has made the state monitoring process more surgical, detailing where the state can take control of -- and withdraw from -- specific functions, such as personnel and budget. And the state’s Regional Achievement Centers this year began working with nearly two-dozen of the city’s schools, which are deemed to be among the lowest-performing in the state.

The state’s monitoring process is at the center of Newark’s legal challenge. The local board maintains that Cerf failed to follow the law in ceding at least some controls after the state’s evaluation of the district in 2011, which found the district met required benchmarks in finance and personnel.

Instead, Cerf followed up with a second evaluation in which the progress was not reported, saying that even if certain benchmarks were achieved, the state would maintain control until the district showed “sustained” improvement. The state outlined its argument in its brief in January.

Both parties have filed the final legal briefs in what has been a slow-moving complaint before state appellate court, after the Christie administration unsuccessfully sought to have the case dismissed.

But tensions are even higher outside the courtroom, as could be seen at this past Wednesday night when community activists spoke out early and often at a public forum held at New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Much of the time, the target was state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson, but Mayor Cory Booker also took some heat as an ally of both Anderson’s and Christie’s on many of the reform efforts.

The still-smoldering takeover drew particular attention when student Angel Plaza, the student representative on the local board, rose in the audience to ask Booker why he hasn’t stood up for local control.

“You should have blasted [Commissioner Cerf] and said we should get back that local control,” Plaza said. “I would have thought you would take the mantle and tell him we deserved it. It was a slap in the face to Newark students, all of us. “For 18 years, the state has controlled us, and we’re the dumb ones?” Plaza said.

Amid considerable heckling, Booker responded that he does support the state returning the schools to local control, although he left open the question as to what he has done to promote it.

“I support local control, and I have supported it consistently,” he said. “But until that happens, I’m going to support our kids and our schools right now.”

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