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New Jersey May Loosen Control Over Newark and Paterson Schools

[UPDATE:  ( June 4, 2014): The New Jersey state board of education has approved measures that would return some local control to the school districts of Newark and Paterson. The resolutions approved at the board's meeting on Wednesday grant control of fiscal management to Newark and control of operations to Paterson.] 

The Newark and Paterson school districts, which have been state-run for nearly 19 and 23 years, respectively, may regain some measures of autonomy if the state board of education approves two resolutions granting them greater flexibility at its meeting on Wednesday.

In Newark's case, the resolution would allow the local school board—or advisory board as its been called since the state stripped the local school board of its powers on July 5, 1995—to vote on financial matters, or areas of fiscal management. Those votes will still be subjected to a veto by the state's acting commissioner of education or his designee.

In Paterson, which has been state-run since 1991, the resolution would allow the school district to oversee "operations."  Again, such actions would be subjected to a veto by the acting education commissioner.

Neither school district would have the power to make one of the most important decisions school boards make—the ability to choose their own superintendent. That power would remain the province of the state until it grants them the right to make decisions about governance.

The advisory boards, activists, and residents in both communities have lobbied for years for the right to run their own schools, arguing that the state experiment had failed to improve student performance. They have also chafed at the inability to choose their own superintendents.

Both have sued the state Department of Education in the past—and lost—for failing to return local autonomy to their communities.  But the decision to return some control over Newark's finances had some roots in a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Newark's Education Law Center, and pushed by the advisory board and some community groups.

Last year, Education Week took an in-depth look at New Jersey's takeover law and how it's been implemented in four urban districts. New Jersey is one of nearly 30 states that can step in and run failing or mismanaged schools.

Newark activists have amplified calls for local control recently, an aspect featured heavily in a blueprint to improve the school district that incoming Mayor Ras Baraka released soon after his election victory.

According to the Newark resolution before the state board, the district has "demonstrated substantial and sustained progress"  on its N.J. Quality Single Accountability Continuum (the state benchmarks used to monitor and evaluate all districts), as well as shown evidence that it had the personnel in place and operations to demonstrate that the fiscal progress will be maintained. The district has had the power to vote on matters related to district operations since 2007.

The language in the Paterson resolution is similar, saying that the district had also made substantial and sustained progress in operations and had the program, personnel, and policies in place to ensure that the progress continues.

In both cases, the state and districts would have to collaborate on transition plans. 

In a June 2 letter to Newark's state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson, acting Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe pointed to the district's fiscal management scores—93 percent in 2011,  88 percent in 2012 and 88 percent in 2013—as reasons underlying the recommendation to return fiscal management to the board.

But he couldn't recommend state withdrawal because the district scored inconsistently in two key areas—governance and personnel—and received low scores in instruction and programs over the last three years.

In Paterson, after failing various parts of the operation section, the district had taken positive steps under Board Chairman Chris Irving to improve operations, data controls, management, and review, Hespe wrote the state-appointed superintendent in Paterson, Donnie Evans.  

But the district did not meet student achievement benchmarks. It also failed to align all nine areas of the curricula with the state's Core Curriculum Content Standards and still needed to work on improving its personnel and fiscal management scores.  The review also found health and safety issues in the district's buildings.

Rosie Grant, the executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, a local advocacy group that has been campaigning for a return to local control, said Wednesday's vote to return some measure of autonomy was a positive step while the district worked to rectify the other issues. 

"I understand that it's going to be  a process—and it's starting with operations," Grant said.  "Although it's not [a vote] for local control, I'm pretty excited about it." 

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