Fight Over School Closings in Newark, Other Cities Heads to Legislative Arena

Bill spurred by ongoing controversy would require local approval of plans to shut or sell buildings

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex)
Newark’s fight over school closures is heading to the Legislature, as a bill was introduced yesterday that would require explicit local approval of any closing of a school in the state-controlled district — or in any district in the state.

Reflecting a debate that is resonating in other states, too, the bill is the latest step in a protracted battle in Newark over state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson’s plans to close or consolidate more than a dozen schools.

A petition calling for local votes on the closures has garnered more than 3,000 signatures, according to organizers.

The school-closing plans are part of Anderson’s “One Newark” initiative that would reorganize the district and move to a universal enrollment system including the district’s charter schools. Gov. Chris Christie highlighted Anderson and her plans during his State of the State address on Tuesday.

But the shutdown plans have also faced strong resistance in some pockets of the community, even while hundreds of families have attended enrollment fairs over the last week to start picking their new schools for next fall.

The bill would surely slow those changes, if not prevent some of the closures outright, by instituting a public process – similar to what’s required for hospital shutdowns — for any planned school closing or sale.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) is the prime sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, and state Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer) is the Assembly sponsor. At a Statehouse press conference yesterday, Rice and others stressed what they said is the Christie administration’s sale of closed school building to charter schools.

The bill faces long odds of winning passage in the Legislature, and it’s even less likely to be signed by Christie. But it has already gained some influential backing, with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chair, voicing support during the press conference.

Ruiz is not yet listed as a sponsor, but she said she was spurred by emails from parents in Newark who are worried about the impact of school closings on their children.

“Parents recognize that change has to be made, but they want to be part of the process,” Ruiz said. “The bill is about creating a process throughout the state, and creating a uniform, transparent system.”

The bill would apply to all school districts in the state, but is clearly aimed at urban ones like Newark that have seen a big drop in enrollment and face pressures to close school buildings. School closures have also taken place in Camden, another state-controlled district, with likely more to come.

It’s not just a New Jersey issue, either, as fights have surfaced nationally in cities including Philadelphia and Chicago. Organizations led by the nation’s teachers unions have especially pushed back and have helped bankroll some of the opposition.

Yesterday, sponsors said the bill aims to ensure that there is a full and public review of any school closure, with the key piece being a vote by the local school board before the state gave final approval.

In districts not controlled by the state, local school boards would likely have a strong say, anyway, but the state’s powers over schools – especially low-performing ones – have only increased under the Christie administration, with closures or major reorganizations among the last-resort options.

Still, the state-controlled districts are the ones really in the cross-hairs, and the Newark debate has been especially intense, spilling into school board meetings and public rallies, including one that drew more than 500 people on Wednesday.

There had been some sentiment for an outright moratorium on closures, but this bill would not necessarily prevent the closures, only set up a process that would require a district to justify the decision and prove it would not cause increased racial segregation, larger class sizes, or other potential harms.

Some protections are already written into regulations that say the state education commissioner must approve any closures. But the proposed legislation would add more checkpoints, with the local approval certainly be the most contentious piece.

The state now holds control of Newark and Camden, as well as Paterson and partially in Jersey City. The local advisory boards retain some public influence, but except for in Jersey City, the state-appointed superintendent has ultimate authority.

The law would create an exception in the case of school closures.

Advocates say closing a school can have a lasting and deleterious effect, not just on students and staff, but also on surrounding neighborhoods and the community.

“You may control many things, but when it comes to public assets or closure of buildings, they need to have it approved first before going to the commissioner and have to tell us what is going to happen,” Rice said yesterday.