State Board Prepares to Cede Local Control to Jersey City Schools

John Mooney | July 6, 2017 | Education
Former Gov. Kean, who presided over takeover, quantifies modest success as ‘biggest disappointment’ of his administration

Former Gov. Tom Kean
When the State Board of Education yesterday all but ended New Jersey’s takeover of Jersey City schools, former Gov. Thomas Kean said he could only think about the missed opportunities.

Kean, who in 1988 ordered what was the nation’s first state takeover of a local district, said in an interview with NJ Spotlight yesterday that he has no doubt seen gains in Jersey City schools — and in the other three state-controlled districts that followed: Paterson (in 1991), Newark (1994), and Camden (2013).

But he also said he had hoped for so much more in terms of changing teacher rules and conditions, instructional innovations and practices, and the overall climate of the district’s schools.

“It’s the biggest disappointment of my administration,” Kean said in the interview, speaking of his two terms from 1981 to 1989. “I would have just so liked to try all those things.”

Final steps

The news that the State Board and the Christie administration had begun the final steps of returning full local control to Jersey City brought that kind of mixed reaction from those who were there in the late 1980s when the takeover was a bold move.

The public comments yesterday focused on the present, with “historic” a favorite word of choice. “This historic achievement is the result of the collaborative work of the Department of Education, and the Jersey City Public Schools,” Christie said in a statement.

But like Kean, others who were on hand in the 1980s and early 1990s said they also wished for more.

“Oh my, it was so many years ago,” said Maud Dahme, who served on the board from 1983 to 2007, including as its president.

“I just wished for more innovative things happening, a change in climate and how they did things,” she said. “But nobody would buy into it.”

Real changes

That’s not to say the takeover didn’t bring real changes. The state removed the district’s superintendent and revamped the powers of the local school board. Richard Kaplan was a senior official in the state education department who recommended the takeover at the time.

“Our report detailed the educational bankruptcy that was commonplace throughout the district,” said Kaplan, who went on to be the New Brunswick superintendent. “Not only was the educational system bankrupted but the personnel, facilities, financial system was corrupted. It was a system not addressing the needs of the students.”

But a protracted debate in the Legislature, and then a year-long court fight after the district appealed, watered down the state’s powers, Kean said.

“I wanted to go around the Legislature, “ the former governor said yesterday, “but my lawyers wouldn’t let me. They said we wouldn’t win.

“And then [the district] sued, and that delayed it another year,” Kean said. “In the end, we had just six months to act.”

The senior member of the current board that voted yesterday, Ronald Butcher, joined in 1990, the first years of the Jersey City takeover, with Paterson about to be launched.

Failure and corruption

He said yesterday in the minutes after the board’s votes that he had no regrets about the state moving in to take over districts. There were few other options when the level of failure and, in some cases, corruption were indisputable.

But he and others also said there was little thought then about how the state would exit from the takeovers, as evidenced by the 27 years in Jersey City, 25 years in Paterson, and 23 in Newark.

“I thought back then that the takeover was a great idea, because there were significant problems, particularly in the financial and instructional areas,” Butcher said.

“At that time, there was no mechanism to get out, only to get in,” he added.

Kaplan agreed: “I never thought … it would take almost 30 years for the district to be recertified and returned to local control.”

Still, in the years since, none of them said they would have moved differently. The former governor said it was the equivalent of “educational child abuse” taking place at the time, and the state needed to act.

“Children were getting warehoused instead of educated,” Kean said. “We could not just sit there and let it happen.”

But how it turned out is trickier to measure. “I think it has worked,” Butcher said of the takeovers. “Has it worked as we anticipated, I don’t know.”