When Jersey City was awarded additional control of its public schools last week, the assumption was that the district was making big progress after its nearly 30 years of state operation.
Mayor Steve Fulop made the trip down to Trenton for the announcement, and state Education Commissioner David Hespe praised the steps forward that the district had made.
But the details of its state-monitoring report released last week indicate plenty of work ahead, with the district actually taking some steps backward in terms of its fiscal operations and making only small progress in its central function: instruction.
The report under the monitoring system, known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), showed that the district has easily passed the threshold for retaining local control of personnel and district operations, the two areas highlighted in last week’s announcement.
Under the system, a state-run district that meets at least 80 percent of the extensive list of benchmarks in each of five separate categories is eligible for regaining the controls in that category.
In personnel, the district rose to 95 percent of benchmarks reached in the last report, and the operations scoring that covers noninstructional functions such as building maintenance saw 100 percent of benchmarks met.
But that was the good news. The lone remaining area still requiring state oversight and separating the district from full local control is instruction and programming. What’s more, the district still hovers well below the requisite 80 percent, with 64 percent of benchmarks reached, only a slight increase over the 62 percent in 2012.
The bulk of the shortcomings were in the student performance measures that are QSAC’s central — albeit controversial — basis of determining whether adequate instruction is taking place.
For instance, Jersey City gets none of the 10 possible points it would receive for a minimum of 75 percent of students reaching proficiency in state tests or any marked change in narrowing its achievement gaps.
Such measures have long been questioned as valid determinants of state control, to say the least, given the seemingly intractable challenges of a high-poverty district. But until the law changes, they remain the highest hurdle for Jersey City to clear.
Meanwhile, there were other troubling signs as well in the latest report, including a drop in the district’s grade for fiscal management. Three years ago at 95 percent passing, the district fell to 72 percent in the latest report, largely due to some “weaknesses” shown in its most recent financial audits.
The QSAC report doesn’t detail those weaknesses, and efforts to reach the district for further explanation weren’t successful. And falling below 80 percent doesn’t trigger state control again. Instead, the district needs to develop an improvement plan, adding another bar to reach.
Still, such fluctuations are not unusual. Jersey City for the past seven years has retained the most critical of controls over governance, allowing the local board to pick its own superintendent.
Yet that score fell to as low as 56 percent in 2012, also triggering an improvement plan. In the latest QSAC report, it rose back up to 100 percent.