Lawmakers Seek to End N.J. Takeover of School

October 20, 2012

Paterson would gain control of its public school system for the first time in 21 years under legislation introduced by Democrats that also would limit future state takeovers to five years, lawmakers announced Friday.

"It's time for the state to admit that the prolonged takeover of a local school district is a failed experiment, and it's time to return the school districts that have languished under state control back to the people in those school districts," said state Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, who has sponsored the bill with Nellie Pou, D-North Haledon.

Newark and Jersey City are also under some level of state oversight — a program that has frustrated leaders in all three cities, particularly as urban schools continue to struggle despite decades of intervention by the Department of Education. Paterson has been under state control since 1991 and continues to have six of the lowest-performing schools in the state.

Since that time, the state's third-largest district — with 30,000 students — has been led by a state-appointed superintendent accountable to Trenton instead of an elected school board, which only acts as an advisory panel.

The bill would immediately end state control of the three districts and again empower the Paterson board to vote on budgets, hires, policies and other major decisions. It would also give trustees the option of keeping the state-appointed superintendent and prevent the state from intervening for another five years.

Paterson public schools spokeswoman Terry Corallo acknowledged receiving an email requesting comment but did not send a response Friday afternoon.

Limiting future takeovers of public school districts to five years would drive results, Pou said.

"While there may be legitimate reasons for the state to temporarily take over the functions of a local school district, such an agreement must come with an expiration date," she said.

Christopher Irving, president of the Paterson school board, said local control would make school leaders more accountable and end an approach that hasn't produced the intended results.

"After 20 years, you have to admit you've failed," he said.

A spokeswoman from the state Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

State control has been a sore spot for Irving and other members of the Paterson board.

At a public meeting in February, Irving asked state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to cease state control in seven months if the board met certain benchmarks.

But Cerf brushed the appeal aside. He said such a rapid transition would harm students while acknowledging that the board should ultimately be in charge of city schools.

"There is, at minimum, irony in asking a board to demonstrate its competence, and then disable it from exercising its competence," Cerf said at the rare meeting in Paterson.

For the bill to pass, supporters need to persuade their colleagues in the suburbs that any district is at risk of being targeted for a state takeover, Irving said. An appeal also should be made to conservatives who want to limit the role of government, he said.

"I hope they can convince their non-urban counterparts to understand that it can start with Paterson and move to Paramus in a heartbeat," Irving said.

A 1987 law allows the state Board of Education to "create a school district under full state intervention" whenever the commissioner finds that a local district has failed to ensure a "thorough and efficient" education.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of New Jersey becoming the first state to take control of a local district — the public schools in Jersey City. In urging the state board to authorize a takeover of Patersonschools four years later in 1991, the state education commissioner at the time said Paterson hadn't met state standards for student achievement since 1976.