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Board Hears Update on Status of Two State-Run School Districts

Jersey City gets more local control while Newark’s new superintendent is upbeat but outlines challenges ahead

Jersey City Schools Superintendent Marcia Lyles and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop

A striking juxtaposition between two state-run school districts was apparent during yesterday’s monthly meeting of the State Board of Education.

First to appear before the board was the new superintendent of Newark schools, Chris Cerf, the former state commissioner chosen by Gov. Chris Christie to help the state’s largest district make the transition back to local control after 20 years over state oversight. It was clear that Cerf has a tough task ahead.

His appearance was followed by a far more celebratory announcement that the board would return further controls to Jersey City schools, which were taken over by the state nearly three decades ago.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop was on hand to cheer that news. From a distance, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka issued a statement saying he hopes his city’s schools will be next.

Yet for all the sound bites, the meeting shed light on the big challenges still facing both districts.

For Jersey City, the state board formally approved the return of further controls over personnel and operations, giving it four of five categories no longer under the control of the state.

“This is the most significant step in our education system in the last 30 years,” Fulop said.

But the district won the right to once again choose its own superintendent seven years ago, and the latest easing of state control represented only an incremental step further.

The state retains at least some say over instructional programs, the last of the five and maybe the trickiest as it factors in student performance. And state Education Commissioner David Hespe struck a warning yesterday, saying the state needs to make sure the district doesn’t return to the abuses that led to the 1988 state takeover in the first place.

“And so this new relationship, I think, also has to have a cautionary tone that we need to make certain that these issues that led the state takeover never reoccur,” Hespe said.

One key question is whether the district’s superintendent, Marcia Lyles, will be sticking around to lead the final steps in transition.

Lyles, hired by the board three years ago, will see her contract expire at the end of this school year. She has until the end of the month to inform the board whether she wants to stay. The board then has until the end of the year to decide her fate.

Lyles yesterday said she hopes to stay, saying her administration has been working on improving instruction “child by child, building by building” and that she wants to see it through. She said regaining full control and passing the state’s monitoring process won’t be easy, but she is hopeful.

The Jersey City board’s president, Vidya Gangadin, was also at the meeting yesterday and was less certain about the board’s stance on rehiring the superintendent, saying she didn’t rule out any options. She said that the board was waiting to hear from Lyles and then would make a decision.

“These are all possibilities,” she said.

Things have hardly been peaceful between Lyles and the Jersey City teachers’ union, the largest chapter of the New Jersey Education Association, whose president applauded the state’s latest moves but said more work remains.

“We haven’t had too much interaction with [Lyles],” said Jersey City Education Association president Ron Greco in an interview with NJ Public Television.

“She took nearly 30 months to complete a contract and it’s still not done,” Greco said. “We had to go to arbitration just two weeks ago because she intended to strip out language that she agreed to in negotiations, so we certainly don’t have a positive relationship with her.”

Still, Jersey City’s outlook may look rosy compared to Newark schools.

Cerf, who once presided over the State Board meetings as state education commissioner, gave the board an update on progress in the state’s largest district.

For the most part, he was upbeat in his wide-ranging and often-blunt presentation, describing significant progress in not only his short tenure so far but under controversial former superintendent Cami Anderson.

“The suggestion that there has not been noteworthy progress over the last four years is just preposterous and inaccurate,” Cerf said, citing significant gains in graduation rates and what he described as a groundbreaking teacher contract.

Most immediately, he said schools opened this fall without significant disruptions under the second year of a controversial universal enrollment system, initiated by Anderson, known as “One Newark.”

“It absolutely stumbled out of the gate the first year, but operated much more smoothly this year in serving 8,000 families,” Cerf said.

But he also didn’t hold back on addressing challenges ahead, starting with the district’s nearly $1 billion budget. Cerf said he was “a little surprised” to find a $63 million budget hole when he took the job this summer. Despite cutbacks since then, he said the district still faces a $15 million budget deficit.

“My pledge is not to impact the schools to the maximum extent possible,” he said.

“I am standing here saying we don’t want to be cutting any athletic teams or clubs, and I am working extremely hard to avoid that,” Cerf said at another point

Much of the budget pressure has come from payments the district is required to make to the city’s charter schools. Cerf, a cheerleader for charter schools as state commissioner, yesterday acknowledged that some funding stop-gap is needed to help the district.

He said the mandatory funding for charter schools year to year is “disproportionately hurting the district schools,” adding, “We can’t just turn the other way and let that happen.”

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