Fine Print: State Control of Newark Schools in Court

Advocates of home rule for Newark schools take their case to Appellate Court

What it is: The first legal briefs have been filed in the appeal of the Christie administration’s recent decision to retain control of New Jersey’s largest school district. Appellants contend that the administration manipulated the process that would have started shifting the schools back to local oversight. The state has moved to dismiss the appeal outright, at this point on mostly technical grounds.

What it means: The challenge before the state appellate court sets the stage for the legal system to weigh in on an explosive situation that the political system has failed to resolve for the past decade. The court battle comes at a time when the district is in the national spotlight for its school reform efforts being guided by the state, as well as the $100 million gift from Facebook founder mark Zuckerberg.

The appellants’ argument: The brief filed this week by the Education Law Center, the outspoken advocacy organization, the local board, and the Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools (CENPS) contends that state Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf did not follow the statutory requirements for how the state determines the district’s readiness for local control.

At issue: Cerf has ruled twice that the condition of the Newark schools did not warrant the end of state control after more than 16 years. A year ago, he overruled the state’s own monitoring process — known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) — that found the district ready in four key categories, including budget and personnel. He said that the continued low performance of the schools required the state’s oversight to stay in place. This year, he ordered an interim QSAC review that found the district falling short on most of those same benchmarks.

The three-year rule: Under the QSAC law, all districts are to be reviewed every three years through a long and detailed checklist of standards. One of the key arguments in the appeal is that Cerf wrongfully conducted the “interim” review this year, just a year after the more favorable review in 2011.

Quote unquote: From the appellants brief, written by David Sciarra, the ELC director: “While the Commissioner’s proffered alteration would be improper for any district, it is even more egregious when the State is reviewing its own performance in operating the Newark public schools, a unique circumstance demanding scrupulous adherence to QSAC’s explicit statutory and regulatory framework.”

The state’s response: The administration has sought to have the appeal dismissed on several procedural grounds: the appeal is specifically over the 2011 decision that is now moot in the wake of the 2012 review, and the local board and CENPS do not have legal standing to appeal.

Quote unquote: From the brief written by Diana Sierotowicz, deputy attorney general: “In reality, the Advisory Board is attempting to bring suit on the district’s behalf in that it wants Newark to begin transitioning away from state intervention. Had the Legislature intended to grant an Advisory Board the power to sue on behalf of a district, it would have so stated.”

What’s next: The appellate court must rule first on the state’s motion to dismiss. If it rejects the motion, both sides will proceed to argue on the merits of the appeal itself, with a conclusion many months if not years away.