Appeals Court Upholds State Control of Newark Schools

Strongly worded ruling cites lack of sustained improvement

A state appellate court yesterday gave a big boost to the Christie administration – and future administrations – when it comes to control of the state’s most troubled school districts.

In a strongly worded decision, the three-member court rejected an appeal by Newark’s local school board and a group of community advocates who sought the return of at least some local control of the public schools after nearly two decades of state operation.

Instead, the court repeatedly said in its 17-page decision that despite the Legislature’s attempt at developing an exit strategy for takeover districts to regain local control, the final word rests with the state education commissioner.

“We are satisfied that the commissioner retains broad discretion in recommending withdrawal of state intervention,” read the court’s decision.

The court also ruled that even though Newark public schools reached certain state-imposed benchmarks as laid out in 2006 legislation, there had not been enough sustained improvement – an assessment, the ruling emphasized, to be made again by the education commissioner.

“The Commissioner retains the discretion under the statute to determine whether the district has successfully implemented an improvement plan and made sufficient progress in achieving the relevant quality performance indicators,” it read.

While the decision specifically addressed the long-running feud over control of the state’s largest district, it comes at a time when the Christie administration has become more aggressive in pressing for change in its other large urban districts.

Most recent was Gov. Chris Christie’s announced state takeover of Camden schools, which went into effect late last month, but the administration has also balked at giving back controls to Paterson schools and has stepped up its influence in Jersey City schools.

The state took control in Paterson in 1991 and in Jersey City in 1989, the first such takeover in the nation. The state set the stage for the school-district takeovers with a 1987 statute enacted under former Gov. Thomas Kean, with amendments developed in 2006 to give districts a method for regaining control by meeting certain benchmarks for instructional and operational improvements.

“This decision completely guts the 2006 (legislative) amendments to the takeover law, since even if the district performs at a high level and would, if not a takeover district, be deemed satisfactory, the Commissioner can basically come up with a reason — any reason — not to withdraw on the grounds of no sustained progress,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which argued the case on behalf of local school advocates.

The head of Newark’s local school board, which was relegated to advisory status under the takeover law, expressed disappointment but stressed that the board would not give up.

“Neither the Board nor our constituents will back down from the demand for full local control,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, chairwoman of the local advisory board.

“We will continue to highlight the inequity of this system that gives complete power to the Commissioner, to the exclusion of the school board, the parents, and the statutory guidelines.”

Baskerville-Richardson said the board has not decided whether it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The challenge did bring some limited movement toward restoring local control. In an unusual move, the state’s lawyers announced in the middle of oral arguments before the appeals court this spring that it would be willing to cede some controls pertaining to finances.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf subsequently informed Baskerville-Richardson in a letter that he would meet with her and the board later this month to begin those discussions.

But Baskerville-Richardson pointed out that even if those talks are held, the state and appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson will retain control over virtually all decisions.

“Without local control in the area of governance, Superintendent Anderson can continue to veto any of the board’s decisions,” she said.

In addition, the court did lay out some criteria for districts to make a better legal case, noting the lack of consistent progress illustrated by Newark’s “fluctuating scores” under the QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum) process, which is the education department’s monitoring and evaluation system for public school districts.

“Based on these fluctuating scores alone, the Commissioner could reasonably refuse to recommend withdrawal of state intervention,” the court said.

The court did not address the fact that it was the state essentially judging itself through the process, given that it has been in control of the district for close to two decades.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said low graduation rates and other achievement scores that the state cites in its defense of state control are their own indictment.

“The very low grad rates and test scores that Cerf cited in his letter is an indictment on his and his predecessors failure to make the solid improvements in educational performance that state takeover was intended to bring about,” Sciarra said.

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