Bill to Give More Local Say Over School Closures Progresses in Senate

John Mooney | January 31, 2014 | Education
But another measure just starting to come together would spell out how state-run districts can return to local control

Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex).
A bill that would give more local say over school closures, even in state-run districts, won important backing yesterday, with the Senate’s education committee endorsing it unanimously.

But a more significant bill may be on the horizon that would clarify and potentially speed the end of state control in New Jersey’s four takeover districts.

The Senate committee passed the bill sponsored by state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) that would give local school boards a binding say before any school is closed or sold. The vote was 4-0, with one abstention.

The bill is aimed especially at the state-controlled Newark schools, where superintendent Cami Anderson has moved ahead on a district reorganization that would include closing or consolidating more than a dozen schools.

Parents and community activists have loudly protested the moves, although Anderson has shown no signs yet of backing off.

Rice testified on behalf of the bill yesterday, as did several Newark parents who said that they have felt left out of Anderson’s decisions to close schools and reorganize others.

Legislators were sympathetic. “Nobody said they don’t recognize the need for change in some of our school districts,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) in voting in favor.

“The issue at hand is we don’t know in a clear and concise way what is happening [with these closures],” she said.

State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said this was not just a Newark issue.

“It’s Newark today, but it could be Trenton tomorrow,” she said. “It could be coming to a neighborhood near you.”

The bill moves next to the Senate vote and also the Assembly, where it has yet to be posted in committee. Even if approved, however, few foresee it would ever be signed by Gov. Chris Christie, who appointed Anderson as well as the superintendents in the three other takeover districts.

Nonetheless, it has clearly touched a nerve with the Legislature, and Ruiz said that she has asked the legislative staff to start drafting a separate bill that would clarify the exit strategy for state takeovers in general, three of four of them now entering their third decade.

“We can’t stand here and say that state takeover leads to success,” she said. “We just can’t say that.”

The new bill would require that the state relinquish control of specific area of the district’s operation — be it finance, instruction or other defined areas – if the district met 80 percent of the benchmarks required under the state’s monitoring.

Currently, the law triggers consideration at 80 percent, but State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf still has discretion. Cerf has used that discretion in delaying return of at least partial control in Newark.

Ruiz said her bill would remove that discretion. “If you are meeting 80 percent, it’s automatic [return] — no discretion,” she said after the meeting.

Rice wrote the existing monitoring law, and said he would support any change to clarify it. He said the discretionary piece was put in as part of the negotiation over the bill, but it had backfired on districts like Newark.

“We didn’t like it then, but it was a compromise,” he said. “It should be taken out, there should be no discretion.”

But Rice said he hoped that it would not mean his closure bill would be slowed down in deference to the larger bill.

“The changes don’t need to be all in one bill,” he said. “You don’t hold up one bill that is needed right now.”

The Newark parents on hand yesterday said they were encouraged that their arguments are at least being aired in the Statehouse.

“It’s happening quickly, we didn’t expect it that fast,” said Hassan Manning, parent-teacher association president of Maple Avenue School in Newark, which would be closed to become a preschool center.

Added Geraldine Howard, also of Maple Avenue and a parent leader at Weequahic High School, another affected school: “We feel that as parents, we haven’t been heard. We were closed out of everything that was going on with our children. That’s why so many parents are so angry.”