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State Poised to Return Some Local Control to Paterson, Newark Schools

But Board of Education retains final say overall, including appointing district superintendents

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

As debate continues over the state’s seemingly never-ending control of certain troubled school districts, the Christie administration is about to return at least some control to two of those districts.

The State Board of Education is slated tomorrow to act on two resolutions that would give up the state’s control of facility and other operational functions in Paterson, and its control of budget and fiscal management in Newark.

The move would still leave the districts under overall state control, with the Christie administration still having veto authority and also the ultimate power of appointing the district superintendent.

That’s especially relevant in Newark, as protests mount over state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson, whose contract is about to expire.

But the board’s actions will at least start the transition toward fuller local control in these two school districts, assuaging long-roiling animosity that has boiled over in recent years.

Newark schools have been under state control since 1994; Paterson schools have been run by the state since 1991. The state still has at least partial control of the school district in Jersey City, which was first taken over in 1988, and has had full control since last year in Camden, the most recent addition to the group.

The move to cede some control in Newark is driven by both a court agreement and improved circumstances in the district, officials said.

The local advisory board had sued to end state control. While the board lost the overall argument last year, the state agreed as part of the proceedings before the state appellate court to at least start shifting the budget controls.

The deadline for such a shift was July 1, requiring the state to move by this board meeting.

The state also released new monitoring reports for the districts yesterday, under the controversial system known as the QSAC, or the Quality Single Accountability Continuum, and the administration cited the Newark district’s improved capacity to handle its own budget.

Part of the irony is that the state’s review is of its own operation of the district. Still, according to the latest report from acting commissioner David Hespe, the district had met 88 percent of the benchmarks for fiscal operations. It was the third such score above the 80 percent threshold, showing sustained improvement, officials said.

In the latest QSAC evaluation, Newark also met 100 percent of the benchmarks in the area of personnel, the first time it was over 80 percent in three years; it scored 83 percent in operations; and it attained 76 percent of the benchmarks in governance.

The districts still fell well short in the area of instructional programs, meeting only 33 percent of the required benchmarks. The district continued to show under-performance in student achievement, as well as shortcomings in implementing a full curriculum in all subject matters.

Hespe yesterday wasn’t promising imminent – or even further -- transfers of other state controls in Newark, even with the improving scores, and he has long said that the process needs to be deliberate and consistent.

“We are living up to our commitment,” Hespe said in an interview. “It is a lengthy process (for full return of local control), but this does maintain out commitment to the continuation of the process.”

Antoinette Baskerville–Richardson, a member of Newark’s local advisory board and its former president, has been one of the local board’s point persons in the discussions with the state, and she said the fiscal powers are an important step in those negotiations.

The board has been frequently at odds with Anderson over fiscal management issues, claiming she hasn’t shared information.

“It is extremely important, in that it will finally allow access to documents in a timely manner,” Baskerville-Richardson said yesterday. “Still, we have not yet received the final agreement that will spell this all out.”

One of the fiscal powers that Baskervile-Richardson said the local board has sought is approval of any building leases or sales, a point of contention as the district downsizes in the face of falling enrollment.

She added that even with those powers, the critical one of self-governance -- and the power to appoint the superintendent -- remains the ultimate aim.

“Yes, this is absolute progress, but we know without governance (powers), the superintendent can still veto us,” she said.

The state board’s moves in Paterson have different roots, but some say it may also portend a transition to more local control.

“It’s a wonderful first step,” said Jonathan Hodges, a board member who has been the most consistent critic of the state’s control in Paterson.

“We are appreciative of the state’s recognition of our continuous efforts,” he said.

The Paterson board also pursued legal challenges to the state’s role in recent years, but lost outright in court. And the state’s release yesterday of the district’s evaluations under QSAC indicated that it still has a ways to go.

According to its QSAC scores, Paterson met 85 percent of the operations benchmarks, opening the way for that transfer of power. It also met 84 percent of its fiscal benchmarks, marking its first time over 80 percent, and scored 74 percent in governance and 64 in personnel.

Paterson, too, saw the greatest weakness in instructional programs, largely due to lagging student achievement. It hit just 32 percent of those benchmarks.

State Board of Education President Arcelio Aponte yesterday said he expected the board to easily approve the resolutions on Wednesday, but he noted that it would hardly be the end of deliberations, particularly in Newark.

‘This is an acknowledgement of both districts’ work over the years to improve their operations,” Aponte said.

“Still that is not to dismiss the current uncertainty in Newark, as well as in Paterson,” Aponte said. “There is an acknowledgement that there are troublesome issues in Newark, and even though we are returning one component to local control, it doesn’t dismiss that we are all still concerned.”

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