Paterson District Regains Some Fiscal Control, as $45M Shortfall Looms

Situation raises larger questions about requiring state-controlled districts to improve -- when there’s little new money to help

Donnie Evans, Paterson's superintendent of schools
As the Christie administration struggles with how to intervene in New Jersey’s most troubled school districts, Paterson in just the past week provides an excellent case study.

On Wednesday, the State Board of Education voted to return to the district some additional powers over personnel and fiscal operations as it enters its 25th year of state operation.

The most critical controls remain in the state’s hands — including the power to pick the district’s superintendent — but the move was nonetheless celebrated by local leaders.

But only a few hours later, the state’s appointed superintendent announced the district could face a shortfall of $45 million next year, putting a number of schools in jeopardy and making further layoffs likely in a district that saw 300 already this year.

The situation also raised a vexing question: If a district is going to regain full local controls, can it do so in the face of budget cuts?

Some weren’t so sure.

‘This is very much a two-edged sword that cuts deeply both ways,” said Jonathan Hodges, a board member who has been outspoken for full local control for years. “You want the controls, but then you are given the fiscal control back when the district is virtually bankrupt.”

It’s a quandary that faces the administration and Gov. Chris Christie as he enters the last lap of his governorship and seeks to cement his moves to overhaul New Jersey’s toughest districts.

On the one hand, he has played up his education reforms in Newark and his takeover of Camden in 2013, yet at the same time, the state’s financial crisis has left him with few resources to give either of them much help.

Paterson Superintendent Donnie Evans said over the weekend that he would avoid cuts that directly impacted the schools and their staffs. He said two new schools would be opening next year. But at the same time, he said there were two others that were possibly on the chopping block.

“The district continues to have numerous needs that will require additional funds to adequately address these needs,” Evans said in an email.
“However, our core business is instruction and our mission is to prepare all students for success in the college/university of their choosing and in their chosen careers.

“For these reasons, we will continue to give priority for the funds we receive — regardless of how much we are allocated — to our teachers, building administrators, and building-level support staff in pursuit of our mission.”

Much of this hinges on the state aid picture that will be made clearer today with Christie’s presentation of his fiscal 2017 budget. District-by-district allocations will come a few days later, but the overall budget plan will lay out the general strategy that Christie will employ for schools.

And don’t expect much help for Paterson or the vast majority of other districts. For the past six years, New Jersey’s public schools have received nominal increases in state funding, if any at all. Today’s fiscal 2017 budget may include ups — and downs — for some, but there is little expectation of big shift, at least in the near future.

And this leaves an especially stark challenge for New Jersey’s four state-controlled districts: Newark, Camden, Jersey City, and Paterson.

With the exception of Camden, which is only in its third year of state operation, Christie has pledged to return to local control to the others they prove ready. At the same time, he has provided little to no additional budget help to put in place the programs to do so.

For Paterson, it is especially daunting; just a few years ago, it drew broad praise from then-commissioner Chris Cerf. But its student scores – including under the new PARCC testing – have since suffered, and it met just 30 percent of the benchmarks needed to regain controls of instruction and curriculum. The minimum for regaining controls under the state’s monitoring system is 80 percent.

“It’s hard to see how we will respond to the results on the tests and put in the programs needed, when all we’re talking about is cutting the budget,” Hodges said yesterday.

“This is in no way saying we are ungrateful for receiving back the [controls] we have,” he added. “But there is also a realistic side to this.”