Three decades later, NJ says goodbye to its rule over Paterson schools

Move to end state control came years ago, but exit process proved difficult
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh

First ordered three decades ago this year, the state’s takeover of Paterson public schools officially ended Wednesday with the unanimous vote of the State Board of Education and a celebration of a historic return to local governance.

Yet like all instances of New Jersey’s long and unprecedented record of school takeovers, Paterson’s three-decade run under state control continues to provide a case study about how such intervention — and how it ends — is far more complicated than a simple vote.

The state board took the long-expected step to wrap up what has been a lengthy transition in Paterson’s resumption of local control, one that was all but sealed in 2018 but required a protracted review process to make it official.

“There are a lot of people who have, over the past 30 years, worked hard to prepare for the restoration of local control of Paterson’s schools and today, all their hard work has paid off,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in his news briefing Wednesday.

The district has had a locally elected board for the past two years. The state’s oversight during that period has mostly been concerned with required reviews and reports conducted by a team of experts to make the transition official.

Nonetheless, the official end drew words of praise during the board’s online monthly meeting today, from both board members and Paterson dignitaries, many of them products of the local schools.

“Self-determination will be our future,” said Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, who’s own political rise included his appointment by the state to the local school board in 2002.

U.S. Rep. William Pascrell spoke about how he was a local Paterson school board member when the takeover took place and never thought it would extend more than “two or three years.”

State board member Ronald Butcher joined the state board in 1991, just a few months before the takeover, and talked about the expectations — or lack of them — from the start.

“Little did I know that seven months later we’d be taking over Paterson schools,” Butcher said. “And little did I know there would be no plan for exiting.

The exit is where the process has been most complicated, taking another 20 years for the state to revamp its monitoring process for all districts, a process that is still in flux, especially during the pandemic. Murphy recently signed into law a plan to slow state monitoring in the wake of the pandemic.

For example, the state’s takeover of Jersey City schools in 1989 — the nation’s first such takeover — is virtually over. But amid recent tumult with its local board, state oversight still remains in place before a final decree.

Newark after its takeover in 1994 did reach full control last year and named its own superintendent, a longstanding school administrator, Roger León. Camden, the newest to the class under former Gov. Chris Christie in 2013, is still under full state intervention.

Yet even Paterson’s return does not come without its own contradictions.

The district for several years has faced a slew of questions and legal challenges about its special-education system and whether students are being identified and served in a timely manner.

A state board member today cited how student achievement is hardly soaring in the district. Less than a third of all students were proficient in language arts, in the latest state test scores, he said.

“We owe our deepest apologies to the people of Paterson for our failure to turn around the mess that was Paterson public schools,” said Andrew Mulvihill, the board’s vice president.

“It’s all yours and I wish you the best of luck,” he said. “You have a huge task ahead of you.”