With Funding Cut, Future of ‘Regional Achievement Centers’ Under Debate

Cerf says RACs still on track despite Democrats’ decision to slice money from budget

The Christie administration’s much-touted plans to create seven “regional achievement centers” across the state for turning around low-performing schools was thrown into question this week, with the Democrats’ decision to slice the centers’ funding from the next state budget.

It came at a time when the future of the Department of Education’s already depleted county offices also remain uncertain, with five more executive county superintendents seeing their terms expire on Monday, with little indication what will happen next.

The county offices have been a concern to some Democrats legislators, part of a broad coalition that beefed up the offices’ powers five years ago and who are now seeing them potentially sidelined by Christie’s new regional achievement centers (RACs).

Some Democrats yesterday said the cut of the RACs’ $1.7 million wasn’t directly related to the county offices, but they did raise concern that the administration appears to be losing sight of the Legislature’s intention in strengthening those offices, in part to push for greater consolidations and efficiencies.

“We did that work for a reason,” said state Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), a member of the Assembly’s budget committee. “I know the administration is focused on other issues, charter schools, tenure and things like that, but these are important, too.”

The RACs appeared, at minimum, to be “duplicative” of what the existing county offices could provide. “Let’s get done what the law says we should do first,” he said.

Other Democratic leaders said the new centers hadn’t been adequately fleshed out enough, either, and given they were a new initiative, the line item in the budget provided a place to cut without affecting existing programs.

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), chairman of the Assembly budget committee, also cited new outside funding that had come in for the RACs from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. The state Board of Education earlier this month accepted a $290,000 donation from the foundation for training of the RACs’ staff.

“We didn’t know exactly what they are doing with this, and given they got that outside funding, they may be able to function in that manner,” Prieto said yesterday.

Whether the cut derails the centers outright is unlikely, with some of the hiring already underway and officials indicating that the money could be found elsewhere.

Still, the $1.7 million would have gone to two dozen staff members at the centers focused on school turnaround strategies for 75 schools deemed the state’s lowest performing. The RACs have been touted as a cornerstone of acting commissioner Chris Cerf’s strategies for reorganizing the department and its functions.

“We are proceeding full steam ahead in building the RACs,” Cerf said in an email last night. “We have reviewed many hundreds of applications, interviewed dozens of top quality candidates, and made many exciting hires. We are on track to be operational by the fall as planned.”

A department spokeswoman would not comment on the status of the county offices, only saying that the executive county superintendents would remain in their jobs and now act “at will.”

But Barbara Morgan, the department’s press secretary, said the county offices would continue to exist as defined by the law, while working with the new RACs in providing budget and compliance help to districts.

“The [superintendents] will work closely with RACs, but will continue to maintain their duties as defined by statute,” Morgan said in an email. “Their role and responsibility is to support all schools in areas such as budget and operations, while the role and responsibility of the RACs is to support the state’s lowest-performing schools in determining and implementing strategies and plans to turn around their academic achievement.”

The five superintendents who saw their terms lapse on Monday were those serving Atlantic/Ocean, Mercer/Middlesex, Sussex/Warren, Cumberland/Cape May and Essex counties.