Bill Would Restore Some Control to School Districts Run by State

John Mooney | January 30, 2014 | Education
Local approval would be required for any proposed closures or handover of buildings

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
As tensions mount over the state’s control of its largest school systems, a bill gaining attention in Trenton would return at least some local say to major decisions in those districts.

Testimony on a bill that would require local approval over individual school closures, including in districts run by the state will be heard today by the Senate Education Committee

The expedited hearing on the bill, S-966, comes as protests have mounted in Newark over state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson’s plans to close or consolidate more than a dozen schools.

A raucous local advisory board meeting on Tuesday ended with Anderson walking off the stage amid a flurry of protests and insults.

Controversy has not been confined to Newark. Critics are also starting to organize in Camden, the latest city to have its schools taken over by the state.

New state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, has presented a strategic plan for the Camden district that doesn’t specifically include school closures, but does call for at least three public schools to be turned over to charter school operators. About 50 people turned out Tuesday night to protest that plan.

The chairman of the Senate committee said yesterday that she hoped the bill would spur discussion of the broader questions surrounding the state’s control of the urban districts and address questions about local input and control of a community’s schools.

“All of this speaks to a greater conversation about local control in these districts,:” said state Sen. Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who has signed on a co-sponsor of the bill. “It’s about all the state takeover districts and the community having a voice.”

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), would require local approval of any of school closure, in addition to the already required sign-off by the state Department of Education.

But the state process itself has also been criticized as being too lenient, and the new bill would further specify some of the requirements for state approval, including full evaluations of both the reasons for the proposed school closing and the expected impact.

Specifically, the law would require school closures to be consistent with the district’s long-range facilities plan; to not lead to increased use of temporary facilities; to not contribute to unlawful segregation of students; and to not result in burdensome transportation requirements for students.