Christie’s Veto Pen Punctures Hopes of Greater Community Role in Deciding School Closures

John Mooney | August 11, 2014
Bill was spurred by wave of closings as part of controversial reforms in Camden, Newark

A bill that would give the public some say about the increasing number of school closings was never a good bet for getting Gov. Chris Christie’s signature.

After all, Christie has been a strong backer of his state-appointed superintendents in both Newark and Camden, the epicenters for such closures to date.

But Christie’s veto of the bill on Friday nonetheless came after lengthy jockeying for a compromise — some, perhaps, at the behest of the governor’s own state education commissioner – that some thought might give the legislation a chance.

The bill would have mandated that local boards of education hold public hearings on proposed school closures, even in the case of state-run districts. School closures have been a hotly debated topic both here and nationwide.

Still, in the end, the governor vetoed the bill outright, saying in his veto message that he didn’t want to duplicate a review process already in place – albeit one entirely run by the state, not the local boards.

“While I appreciate the sponsors’ efforts in this regard, I believe that existing law adequately and appropriately sets forth the proper procedures for closing a school,” he wrote.

The mid-summer veto — part of a package of 11 vetoes announced Friday on measures ranging from pay equity to handling of waste from “fracking” for natural gas — came a month after Christie’s reappointment of Cami Anderson as schools superintendent in Newark.

Newark has been the center of the storm over school closings — and the impetus for the bill in the first place. Drawing nationwide attention, and even spurring a civil-rights complaint alleging that closures are targeting minority schools, the Newark district is going through a widespread reorganization that has seen nearly a dozen district schools closed or turned over to charter schools.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) had been outspoken in his criticism of the closings, which he has assailed as part of a Christie administration quest to “privatize” the district. Rice has said that the legislation was aimed specifically at addressing the situation in his home city.

But what started as a symbolic push picked up steam as the bill kept progressing in the Statehouse, quietly gaining backers among both the Democratic and Republican leadership.

One reason the bill gained support was that Rice was willing to back off on a provision that would have given final say over school closings, even in state-run districts, to the local boards. In the state-run districts, there would have only been public input under the final version of the bill.

The bill passed 58-17 in the Assembly and by a 35-0 final vote in the Senate, with a mix of both Democrat and Republican leaders supporting it.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group, said he worked with Rice and other sponsors at the behest of acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe to tone down the bill.

“At Commissioner Hespe’s request, the provision allowing the advisory boards in state-run Newark, Camden and Paterson to vote on school closings was dropped from the bill,” said Sciarra in an email.

“Governor Christie’s refusal to even let these boards have input on closing neighborhood schools again shows his disdain for the school children and parents in these communities.”

Advocates from Save our Schools NJ said the bill would have provided added local protections: “This legislation would protect communities across New Jersey from state or federal governments that want to forcibly close their public schools. Why would the Governor oppose this bill?”

Efforts to reach Hespe yesterday were unsuccessful.

The package of bill signings and vetoes on Friday came with a couple of notable omissions. Still sitting on the governor’s desk is a bill that would extend Christie’s Urban Hope Act, the 2012 law that has opened up Camden to a big influx of charter-school networks.

The bill would close some gaps in the law that critics contend are an outright violation of the law, and would extend next winter’s deadline for new “renaissance school” proposals in Camden.

The district and the state have already approved three proposals for a total of 15 new charter schools, with the first three opening this fall.

Christie is expected to sign the latest bill into law, but there are provisions that Republicans have been reluctant to support — most notably an “early retirement” package for Camden district teachers leaving the district during its reorganization.

The governor’s office last week said a decision on the bill is still pending. Either way, final action by Christie on the bill won’t happen until the Assembly reconvenes, probably after Labor Day.