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State-Controlled Districts: Acting Commissioner Hespe's First Headaches

New schools chief must walk fine line between administration and local districts

Acting Commissioner of Education David Hespe
Acting Commissioner of Education David Hespe.

In Newark schools, they are talking 400 layoffs of teachers and other staff next year, and the state-appointed superintendent is itching to waive seniority requirements.

Camden’s layoff total may hit 400, too, while the district also sees a new influx of charter networks that will draw both students and dollars from the district.

And while Paterson and Jersey City are calmer on the budget front, there is still a great deal to resolve, such as a lapsed teachers contract in Paterson that's been gathering dust for four years.

As David Hespe starts his second stint as state education commissioner, no greater challenge faces him than the status of New Jersey’s state-controlled school districts, each with its own circumstances -- and headaches.

That was in full evidence last week at Hespe’s appearance before the state Senate budget committee for the annual review of the Christie administration’s education budget.

State aid to districts and how the state decides on funding were prime topics, but no more so than what the state would do next in districts it has controlled for more than two decades.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) raised a host of questions about Newark superintendent Cami Anderson’s plan for that district, including a fiscal 2015 budget that has generated more questions than answers.

For state Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), the focus was the Paterson schools and its continuing teacher contract talks.

Hespe fended off each query with more general comments than specifics, saying, for instance, that the state was in ongoing talks with Newark about returning some fiscal controls that to that district. He also said that the state was seeking to influence the Paterson teacher contract talks.

But the commissioner will have to feel his way carefully as he works through oft-competing interests, from the local communities vying for a return of control to a boss in Gov. Chris Christie who so far at least has wanted to exert greater power.

Over the weekend, Hespe said it was a unique situation, given the state has been in control of these districts for so long. Jersey City started in 1989; Paterson, 1991; and Newark, 1994. Camden is the newest to the club, taken over by Christie administration last year.

Coincidence or Cruelty?

Call it coincidence or cruel timing, when Hespe first served as commissioner under former Gov. Christie Whitman from 1999-2001, one of his first tasks was devising an exit strategy for the state from Jersey City schools. More than a decade later, it’s a process only half-finished, with the local board now holding some governance powers but the state still exerting control over others.

“When we took over these districts, it was due to some real dysfunction in each of them,” Hespe said yesterday. “Now as we move from that, it gets very complicated -- especially when we have been involved with them so long -- to what the next steps are.”

Newark may be the most immediate task, as Anderson fends off loud opposition to her reorganization plan for the district, known as “One Newark.” Last week, her staff presented a $986 million budget for the district in 2014-2015, including up to 400 layoffs of teachers, administrators and others.

A central factor in the cuts was the $19 million more that the district will have to send next year to charter schools in the city, due to an increase of almost 2,000 students attending them. Overall, 12,693 students are slated to attended charters in Newark, costing the district $200.5 million -- a fifth of the overall budget.

Anderson said that the cuts would amount to just $174 per student out a total of more than $20,000.

“The big picture is we want to right-size NPS that allows us to stay competitive and draw back families,” she said last week. “What we’re experiencing is the apex of something that has been happening a long time, and a decision to stop kicking the can down the road . . . all with the eye to keeping NPS viable.”

Still, her staff was quizzed at a public hearing on Monday regarding the little information provided about the budget beyond a PowerPoint presentation. Anderson did not attend the hearing.

A separate public records request by NJ Spotlight only yielded a single-page budget proposal that was advertised in local newspapers, one that actually showed a $1,000 cut per student. Anderson’s staff said those numbers were only preliminary, and stood by the $174 figure.

Hespe’s role on the budget will not so much be the bottom line as much but how the money is distributed. Anderson has sought a waiver from state regulations -- and effectively, state law – to allow her to lay off teachers based on their performance evaluations, instead of the requirement that teachers be cut based on seniority, a policy known as “last in, first out.” (LIFO).

First filed under former commissioner Chris Cerf, the request has been passed to Hespe to resolve, a process that he has repeatedly said is under consideration but not yet decided. He has hedged on whether it would be decided sooner than later, no small issue as a contentious mayoral campaign is underway in the city with education and Anderson’s record at the forefront. The election is May 13.

“This will have major implications for the district, and we want to get it right,” Hespe said yesterday of the waiver request.

But Newark is just one of the issues confronting the new commissioner. Camden, too, faces a budget crisis with more than 500 positions as stake, 400 of which would be trimmed by layoffs.

A year into its state operation, Camden superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard in presenting a $359 million budget and has also cited the rising role of charter districts in the district in further draining students -- and funds.

Camden has the added attraction in being home to the state’s only schools under the Urban Hope Act, which allows charter networks to build entirely new schools within the district while drawing even greater funds.

The district has three networks slated to start next fall. The KIPP network has already won final approval to open the first of its five schools. Mastery Charter Schools and the Uncommon Schools network were both approved locally to open their first schools, although they, too, await final state approval.

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