The Tale of Two Troubled NJ School Districts

Paterson may turn takeover page, while Newark’s state control faces court challenge

New Jersey’s state control of some of its most troubled school districts saw an interesting contrast in the past few weeks.

In Newark, the state-appointed schools superintendent Cami Anderson launched her plans for reorganizing New Jersey’s largest district before a wary and sometimes hostile community audience.

A few days later in a suit initiated last fall, the first legal briefs were filed in state appellate court on behalf of two groups challenging the state’s 15-year-old takeover in Newark.

Meanwhile, Paterson proved a different story, at least for the moment. Once seen as probably the furthest of the state’s three takeover districts from regaining control, state officials were playing nice.

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf met with the board and said he would invite further talks that would help return local control after 20 years in that city.

“It was a fruitful discussion, and I was really impressed with the thoughtfulness and commitment of the board,” Cerf said yesterday in discussing Paterson’s prospects. “I made a commitment that we find a collaborative plan that can set a path toward local control.”

When asked how that juxtaposed with the situation in Newark, Cerf said he has not had such discussions with that district’s local advisory board.
“I have seen no evidence that there is an interest on their part,” he said. “I can’t have a conversation with myself.”

For Paterson, the prospects still are far from certain. Cerf’s meeting with the board ended with public pledges to work together and share plans for the improvement of the schools. In the meantime, Cerf said yesterday that he would extend the current state superintendent, Donnie Evans, for another year.

But not all board members were so optimistic of the state finally ceding control.

“He may be coming here to pacify us, but our position remains very clear,” said Jonathan Hodges, member of the Paterson board and maybe its longest running critic of state control.

“We have our own ideas for improving the schools, and we do not respect what the state has done in this district and what it has the potential for doing in the future,” he said.

Still, that’s nothing compared to Newark, where the state’s control of the district is far more contentious.

Superintendent Anderson’s reorganization plan for the district, including the closing of seven schools, got a rough greeting in a rancorous community meeting two weeks ago. The president of the Newark Teachers Union last week said he would fight the plan, calling it at one point a “state of war.”

But maybe more critical to the future of the district — and the long-term fate of Anderson’s plans — will be what happens in the state’s courts.

Last fall, the local district board and a parents association formally challenged the state’s ongoing control of the district in the face of gains that even the Cerf administration has acknowledged through the state monitoring system.

Under that system, the district received acceptable grades in three categories of governance, fiscal management and operations, opening the way under the law for partial control to be returned to the city. But Cerf rejected the move, saying the district needed to show sustained improvement that it had yet to prove.

In the first briefs in their legal argument, the plaintiffs maintained that Cerf was in violation of the state’s statute that created the monitoring system to largely set a process for state intervention and, just as important, state withdrawal.

The commissioner’s decision, read the brief, “is in clear conflict with the Legislature’s intentions in enacting the provisions for partial withdrawal.”

It not only cited legislative intent, but also that of Cerf’s predecessors as commissioners and their application of the law in determining the state’s partial withdrawal in Jersey City schools.

The brief was prepared by the Education Law Center in Newark, which has led the state’s ongoing Abbott v. Burke litigation and been in frequent battle with the Cerf and Christie administration.

The plaintiffs asked the court to immediately begin the transition to at least partial local control. The state’s response is due in early March.