What Will Local Control in Newark Mean to Paterson, Jersey City, Camden?

John Mooney | July 15, 2015 | Education
Plans for Newark raise possibilities -- and hopes -- for three cities whose schools are at least under partial state operation

Board of Education Building in Paterson.
All the stir about the state’s plans to relinquish control of Newark’s schools has raised a collateral question: What does all this mean for the other three school districts under at least partial state operation?

Gov. Christie Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced in June that they would begin the process of returning Newark schools to local control by setting up an advisory committee to sketch out some benchmarks on how to proceed.

The move didn’t lack for politics or intrigue. Cami Anderson had just stepped down as the state-appointed superintendent of schools, and former state education commissioner Chris Cerf had been named as her replacement. Christie and Baraka were certainly one of New Jersey’s more unusual alliances.

But stakeholders in Paterson, Jersey City, and even Camden, three other districts under state control to at least some degree, are wondering how what’s happening in Newark applies to them.

“Where in law does this process [in Newark] even exist?” asked Jonathan Hodges, president of the Paterson school board who has been among the most outspoken.

“I don’t want to interfere with what’s happening in Newark, but I’ve been studying where Paterson fits into this,” he said yesterday. “I don’t know.”

At issue is the state’s intricate school-monitoring system, the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), which has been in place for almost a decade. Ironically, it has provided an exit strategy in Newark, as well as a way for the state to cement its control over other troubled districts.

QSAC is a series of checklists that measure key functions like instruction, budgeting, and personnel.

An increasing number of districts have been finding themselves under the QSAC magnifying glass, but nowhere does it matter more than in Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, and Camden where the system has kept the state’s controls in place after decades of state operation.

All that may change with the developments in Newark, where state officials have acknowledged that for the district to return to local control, there would need to be significant changes to the state’s QSAC law and its accompanying regulations.

And that means places like Paterson and Jersey City may see changes, too.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe said this week that the other state-operated districts would definitely be weighed for the same consideration as Newark, but he didn’t provide much detail beyond that.

[related]“We are moving ahead for an entirely different model, and certainly what we are doing in Newark will have implications for the others,” he said in an in interview.

“It is hard to say what that will look like, but the governor and the mayor are committed to finding a blueprint,” Hespe said.

When asked whether leaders in places like Paterson and Jersey City would also be involved, the commissioner said the lead would be in Newark but other perspectives would be solicited.

“They’ll be reaching out, I’m sure, and we would welcome the dialogue,” he said. “I can’t answer the ‘whens’ and ‘whats,’ but there will be conversations.”

“Hopefully we will learn some lessons from this group [in Newark], and we can apply them to the other cities,” Hespe said,

But that might be the equivalent of “tough love” for other districts that have long-fought the state’s intervention. Paterson’s board has sued the state over its controls, claiming the district met the necessary benchmarks under QSAC, but so far has not prevailed.

In the 25th year of state controls, Paterson’s board now holds limited authority over certain operational functions, but nothing more.

The first in the nation to be taken over almost 30 years ago, Jersey City’s board has seen key authority returned over governance of the district and even selected its own superintendent in 2012, but it still must win state approval to gain control of other functions like personnel.

The newest member of the takeover club, Camden is under its second year of full state control.

Now with the developments in Newark, Hodges in an interview said the close link between the state and the Newark mayor in an exit strategy is not necessarily what he’s envisioning for his own city of Paterson.

Other advocates have also questioned the role of Baraka in the decision-making, saying there is no such mayoral involvement written into the law.

“If there is a process, I will entertain that discussion, but I’m not sure it’s to be the same way as Newark,” Hodges said, stressing he was only speaking for himself and not the board.

But he added that he was keeping an open mind, hoping the state will involve districts like his own before making any sweeping decision.

“I certainly am not going to be standing around as this happens all around us,” he said.