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State Board Poised to End Control of Jersey City Schools, Newark May Follow

But which state board will make the call? The makeup of the panel is still in flux, and its president and vice president could be ushered out the door

mark biedron
Mark Biedron

The state Board of Education has seen no shortage of political drama these past few months — and still faces some weighty policy decisions.

Both were on display yesterday.

First, the policy decisions. The board announced it will likely move in the next month to end the state’s 30-year takeover of Jersey City schools, the oldest such state takeover of a local school district in the country.

The end of state control in Newark could come soon after, officials said.

The next few months could be a turning point in the state’s longstanding intervention in its most troubled districts, all of which would require the state board’s approval.

But at its monthly meeting in Trenton yesterday, the discussion was as much dominated by who would be serving on the board when it came time to make those decisions. Gov. Chris Christie has moved to replace the board’s leadership and the Democratic-led Senate appears to be going along.

It’s a complex chess game: Board president Mark Biedron and vice president Joseph Fisicaro were both likely attending their last meetings; Christie has moved to replace each of them six years after their appointments.

The state Senate appears poised to confirm the moves, with a final vote expected later this month, despite considerable opposition from within the Democrats’ own ranks.

What’s behind the change is not fully clear, but Biedron and Fisicaro have been outspoken and may have ruffled feathers on both sides of the aisle. Both have also won support from the state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association — no small player in the debate but also no friend of either Christie or state Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Nevertheless, Biedron and Fisicaro yesterday were somewhat resigned to the outcome, although each held out hope that the political maneuvering could still deliver an unexpected outcome. For a boost of confidence, both were nominated to continue as president and vice president, respectively.

“I am not going to go on the record with all the hypothetical stuff,” Biedron said after the meeting, continuing that he will fulfill his role until told otherwise. “I have no idea what is going to happen.”

Echoed Fisicaro: “I have no idea what’s going on. I haven’t heard anything.”

It’s been that kind of spring with the state board as it plays a central role in regulation and code around education policy, from student testing to teacher requirements to charter schools.

And under Biedron and Fisicaro’s leadership, the board has not shied from the controversies. For example, the board yesterday gave final approval to tough new requirements on private special education schools. Meanwhile, it previously blocked a push by the Christie administration to loosen the rules for charter school teachers.

The upcoming decisions around the state’s takeover districts may be among the most consequential of all.

Jersey City schools have been under at least some level of state control since 1987, the first such takeover in the country. The district has been moving toward local control for several years, but the final piece seems in place with the state monitors this month giving the green light to returning the last controls around instructional programs.

Newark is coming next, with its final monitoring scores to be announced in the next few months. The state’s largest district has been under state control since 1994, and may have been the most contentious of all. Christie’s administration has publicly pledged to end the state takeover before the governor leaves office.

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