Jersey City’s Experience Offers Cautionary Tale for Newark, Paterson

While two school districts celebrate return of some local control, they’re still a long way from regaining real power

While Newark and Paterson yesterday won some additional control over their schools, a more lasting lesson may be found in the fate of the nation’s grandfather of state-controlled districts: Jersey City.

The nation’s first school district to be seized by a state, back in 1988, Jersey City has for the last decade sat in limbo of state control, winning back key powers pertaining to budgets and governance that allowed it in 2012 to appoint its own school superintendent, Marcia Lyles.

But even with those restored powers, the state’s second-largest school district still falls well short of full local control, and stands as a cautionary tale of the state’s long reach into local districts, even after the transition back to local control has started.

“The symbolic weight of (full control) is significant,” said Sangeeta Ranade, the Jersey City school board president. “And what I’d like to be able to say is that we’ve earned it.”

The example of Jersey City stood out yesterday, as the State Board of Education unanimously approved resolutions that would cede certain powers back in Newark and Paterson, the two districts that followed Jersey City into state control in the early 1990s.

Paterson for the first time won back control over operations and facilities, a broad category that includes student transportation and other support services.

Newark, which already had control of operations, was granted local powers over budget and finance, effectively giving the local advisory board its first formal vote on the district’s nearly $1 billion in annual spending.

But in both cases, the key powers remained with the state, including the ability to veto any action of the local board and, more importantly, the final say in appointing the superintendent to run both districts.

That has been a particular point of contention in Newark, where even with the newly granted fiscal powers, local leaders have pressed for the ouster of state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.

It’s a lesson that was learned in Jersey City, too. As Newark and Paterson celebrated the return of some of their authority, Ranade noted that it’s a long road to full control.

She gave the state credit for never once vetoing the actions of Jersey City’s local board since the governance and fiscal controls were granted over the course of the last three years.

But she also said that full local control is warranted in Jersey City, and she has been led efforts by her board to press for closure. The board approved a resolution in January calling for the district to submit transition plans for the local board to regain personnel, operations and instructional controls.

“We want to send a message to our community that we are responsive to them, and the best way to live up to that is to have full control of the schools,” she said.

Still, she said the responsibility rests as much with the community as with the state. “We are just not pounding our fist to say we want it, we realize we have to earn it,” she said.

That’s a message not lost on officials in school districts just starting the process.

Christopher Irvings, president of the Paterson school board, spoke before the State Board yesterday, and said afterward that he recalled 23 years ago as an 8-year-old student in Jersey City being told by his mother that the state had seized control of local schools.

He called yesterday’s vote “an important day for the district. . . This creates a glimmer of hope that we have been waiting for 23 years.”

“It proves that the state recognizes the capacity of the local community to move our children forward,” Irving said.

Still, he said regaining full governance powers that would allow the local board to appoint its own superintendent is an important next step, calling it the “holy grail.”

“But what I seek is the state recognizing our capacity,” he said. “This (vote today) is a start, a start to what I hope will be a short and productive path.”

In Newark, it may be a case of “Be careful what you wish for.”

School board President Rashon Hasan addressed the state board and praised its decision to return some local control to Newark.

But Hasan also acknowledged a $43 million budget deficit the board will face in next year’s budget.

Anderson, Newark’s state-appointed superintendent, was conspicuously absent from the meeting, but she released a statement later.

““My commitment has been and continues to be to the students and families of Newark,” she said. “The decision by the State to return fiscal management to the Board is indicative of the progress we’ve made to create a district with excellent educational options for all students, while ensuring the fiscal stability of NPS for years to come.”