School Chiefs Tout Gains While Also Warning That Much Work Remains

John Mooney | January 9, 2014 | Education
State board hears from superintendents of four state-controlled districts

Jersey City superintendent Marcia Lyles testifying before State Board of Education.
In a meeting that lasted nearly five hours, representatives of the growing roster of state-controlled New Jersey school districts made their annual presentations yesterday to the State Board of Education.

The pitches from the state-appointed superintendents in each of the four districts — Jersey City, Paterson, Camden and Newark – were a predictable mix of reports of progress and expressions of caution, with the school chiefs saying their districts were making promising gains in some areas, but faced continuing, if not mounting, challenges.

The four superintendents each won high praise from not just state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who appointed them, but from the state board members as well.

Nonetheless, there were also some lessons to be learned during the meeting held in the Busch Campus Student Center on the Piscataway campus of Rutgers University, enough so that advocates and leaders from other urban districts that have not been taken over by the state were also on hand to hear the testimony and comments.

For one, the four districts are all in very different places in terms of where they’ve been and where they are going.

Most obvious is the differing circumstances in each of the four districts, ranging from the takeover of Jersey City’s schools in 1988 – the nation’s first – to the state takeover of Camden’s schools less than a year ago.

Each district is also at a different crossroads in terms of the state oversight. Jersey City has gained some powers back – in fact, its local board appointed their latest superintendent, Marcia Lyles. Meanwhile, local boards in Newark and Paterson are still pressing to regain even minimal powers, while the Camden schools have just come under state control, with no exit plan in sight.

But for all those differences, Newark especially stood out on a number of fronts, ranging from the attention it got from the board and Cerf, to the public opposition – if not new legal challenges – to the state’s ongoing control.

State-appointed Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson began the presentations, taking the microphone for more than hour and presenting an extensive slideshow on various steps she has taken in her last three years. She cited gains made, in particular, in areas such as leadership development and graduation rates.

The liveliest exchanges came in the board’s questioning of Anderson over ongoing criticism she faces within the community from advocates and activists over what they call a lack of collaboration and public input.

With Cerf coming to her defense, Anderson listed a series of meetings that she has held with parents and others in the community as she developed her plans for the district.

But such meetings have done little to assuage Anderson’s staunchest critics, led by the Newark Teachers Union, which even relocated a press conference from Newark to the Busch Center to highlight the latest controversy over the district’s sale of a school building to the TEAM charter school network.

The local advisory board’s president, Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, issued a statement afterward maintaining that Anderson’s claims of collaboration were not quite as described.

The claims and counter-claims from both sides are not new, tracing back to the start of state control of the Newark schools nearly 20 years ago, well before Anderson’s arrival.

It was noteworthy that none of the same questions arose over any of the three other districts — including Paterson and Jersey City, where the initial takeovers faced intense opposition.

“I would never speak for the situation in other urban districts, but in my town, we have a fantastic working relationship with Dr. (Donnie) Evans,“ said Christopher Irving, president of the Paterson school board, referring to the state-appointed superintendent.

“It doesn’t mean we always agree,” he said. “But we are always working it through together.”

Also interesting was that, for all the criticism coming from Gov. Chris Christie over the funding of urban districts, his own appointees to at least three of the four takeover districts weren’t afraid to hide the fact that they face brutal financial straits in the next couple of years.

Evans, the superintendent in Paterson, called it an “impending cliff.” Anderson spoke of the continuing drain in dollars being shifted to the state’s growing charter school sector.

“Intellectually it makes sense, but in practice, it makes it very difficult for the district,” Anderson said, adding it could cost her district an additional $35 million in each of the next three years.

Lyles, the Jersey City superintendent, echoed her colleagues while also citing the poor condition of school buildings in their districts despite the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke decisions mandating the repair and replacement of inadequate school buildings. Advocates contend that state officials have been slow to comply with the court mandate, especially under the Christie administration.

“We really are in a bad place,” Lyles said of the state of school facilities.

Lyles added an overt plea for the Christie administration to not trim school funding in the next state budget. She said her district could face an $18 million shortfall over the next four years without additional help from the state.

“Just putting in a plug here,” Lyles said, looking to Cerf and the board.

The academic struggles in the four schools districts are hard to ignore. That issue was at the heart of Cerf’s comments as he kicked off the meeting and introduced the superintendents.

“You have a common theme here,” Cerf said. “If you look at the 200 lowest performing schools in the state, they are heavily concentrated in the districts you will hear from today.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been some positive developments in some of the district schools.

Paterson stands out, with some of its best results yet on the state’s tests. But that’s not always saying much, with barely half of Paterson’s high school juniors passing the state’s high school math test last year. On the other hand, 71 percent of the city’s 11th-graders passed the language arts test, continuing a steady rise over the last decade.

“These are the highest scores on the (high school test]) that Paterson has ever generated,” said Evans, the city schools superintendent. “The challenge now is even greater that we continue these increases.”