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New Jersey Agency Hit by Harsh Criticisms, Resignations

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The performance of the New Jersey Department of Education has been harshly criticized in an independent report released this month.

"A growing trend of internal and external conflict has produced cynicism, reactiveness, uncertainty, and a 'siege mentality' within the department," says the study.

It was conducted free of charge for Saul Cooperman, the newly appointed New Jersey commissioner of education, by Robert Maher, manager of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company's "organization effectiveness group," and Wayne K. Hoy, professor of education and associate dean for academic affairs at Rutgers University's graduate school of education.

The report, based on interviews with 102 of the department's approximately 1,500 employees across the state, was intended "to get a 'Polaroid,' a snapshot of the condition of the department," Mr. Cooperman said. "If I hadn't done the study, I wouldn't be able to work on problems with a clear sense of where I was going."

The release of the study coincides with the removal of a number of top department officials.

Seven assistant or deputy assistant commissioners have resigned under pressure; two others who refused to submit their resignations have been fired, according to Mr. Cooperman.

'Build My Own Team'

Mr. Cooperman said the reorganization of the department's leadership was made out of a desire "to build my own team," and "not really" a result of the critical nature of the report.

He added that he did not request the study out of a politically-motivated desire to embarrass his predecessor, Fred G. Burke, who left the post after an acrimonious series of exchanges with Thomas H. Kean, New Jersey's new Republican governor. Mr. Kean appointed Mr. Cooperman.

"Governor Kean did not tell me to do the study, and I am emphatically not interested in discrediting anyone," Mr. Cooperman said.

The New Jersey education department, which administered $2-billion in aid to the state's schools last year, was characterized in the report as: lacking a clearly defined sense of purpose and ability to innovate; having a poor image and low credibility with the state legislature and other units of state government; permitting a substantial duplication of work among its different divisions; and suffering under "an uncertain and shrinking budget."

"What emerges from the analysis is an organization trying to function as a closed system by defensively protecting itself from a dynamic and hostile environment," the report said. In response to recommendations in the report, Mr. Cooperman has set up one task force of department employees to develop a written description of the agency's mission and another to develop a plan for restructuring the organization in order to fit the prescribed mission. The "mission" task force is scheduled to issue its report later this week.

'Substantial Number'

The report also noted the presence of a "substantial number" of political appointments within the department and recommended that the commissioner "demonstrate by work and action" that performance, not political considerations, deter-mines the department's pay and promotion policies.

Mr. Cooperman took over the commissionership from Mr. Burke on July 1. He was selected by Mr. Kean for the position after the Governor's first choice for the job, Ronald Lewis, withdrew his nomination following allegations that he plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis.

Before becoming state education commissioner, Mr. Cooperman, 47, spent eight years as superintendent of the Madison School District, a wealthy suburban school system in northern New Jersey.

He began his career in education as a history teacher in 1960; he holds a doctoral degree from Rutgers.

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