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New Jersey Moves To Take Control of School District

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By Lisa Jennings

TRENTON, NJ--Education Commissioner Saul A. Cooperman of New Jersey last week began proceedings to take control of the Jersey City public schools, describing the urban district as "bleak'' and rife with political patronage, cronyism, and fiscal misdealings.

In the first use of the state's new school-intervention law, the commissioner issued a show-cause order to district officials, giving them until June 3 to demonstrate why the schools should not be taken over and operated by the state.

Though several states have similar intervention laws, Jersey City is the first school district in the nation determined to be in a state of "academic bankruptcy.'' (See related story on page 12.)

Education officials also filed a separate motion with the New Jersey office of administrative law for "emergent relief,'' which could place the district's fiscal and personnel management under state control as early as mid-June.

In a May 24 press conference here, Mr. Cooperman released a three-volume, 2,000-page report on the failing Jersey City district. The massive report, Mr. Cooperman said, documents the results of a comprehensive compliance investigation that began in June 1987 and cost $200,000.

The report details what he described as "innumerable deficiencies that go to the heart of the district's operation.''

"The school district has failed the children and the residents of the city,'' Mr. Cooperman said. "Our first priority must be to serve as advocates for these kids to make sure they get the education they deserve.''

The report also charges that district officials violated state contract-bidding laws and allowed political interference in school affairs.

"The Jersey City School District can be characterized as a public enterprise that has reached a state of managerial bankruptcy,'' the report says. "The district clearly lacks the resolve or resources that are essential prerequisites for the fundamental redirection of the schools.''

Gov. Thomas H. Kean proposed the intervention measure in 1986, and spent a year battling with the Senate before it was finally passed in January of this year.

The law gives the education commissioner the power to replace a district's superintendent, administrative personnel, and school board. It also authorizes him to raise local taxes and to evaluate principals. The law permits even tenured administrators to be fired at the end of a three-stage evaluation process.

Teachers, who had vigorously fought an earlier version of the intervention measure, are not similarly targeted by the law. But Mr. Cooperman said last week that all union contracts must be re-negotiated in the event of state takeover.

The commissioner termed the proposed takeover "invasive surgery,'' and an "intrusion'' that should be undertaken only on rare occasions.

"This is a type of negative motivation and I really don't like it,'' he added. "But I think it can work.''

He noted that, since 1984, the Jersey City schools had "continually failed to meet state standards in the monitoring process.''

New Jersey law requires that each district be certified, based on such standards as student achievement levels, attendance, facilities, desegregation efforts, and fiscal management.

Ninety-seven percent of the state's 583 districts are currently certified, according to state officials.

With an enrollment of 29,000, Jersey City is the state's second-largest district. Most of its students are black or Hispanic.

According to state statistics, last year only about 25 percent of 1,600 Jersey City students who took the state's High School Proficiency Test passed all three elements--mathematics, reading, and writing.

That performance, however, marked an improvement over the 1986 school year, when only about 15 percent passed all three sections of the test.

In the district's 28 elementary schools last year, 66 percent of 3rd-grade students passed the reading and mathematics sections of the Metropolitan Achievement Test, a nationwide examination--up from the previous year's record of 48.6 percent for reading and 53.6 percent for mathematics.

Franklin L. Williams, the city's superintendent of schools, has argued that the district is facing the same socioeconomic roadblocks that stymie other urban school systems, and that increased funding would quicken the pace of reform. The district currently has a budget of more than $171 million.

Urban Roadblocks

Mr. Williams said in a statement last week that he took "strong exception to the state's overall conclusions.'' But he added that he would give the report "full and fair scrutiny.''

"A fundamental precept of education is that reform must be managed from within,'' the superintendent said. "This has been, and will continue to be, the policy of the professional educators who manage this school district.''

Mr. Williams declined to say how the district planned to respond to Mr. Cooperman's show-cause order.

A recent poll suggests that many within the school system itself are supporting the state's efforts.

Of some 90 Jersey City principals and administrators surveyed, 65 percent fully supported the state takeover, despite the risk that they might lose their jobs. Another 15 percent said they would support a takeover "under certain circumstances,'' according to Henry Miller, president of the New Jersey Association for School Principals and Administrators, which conducted the poll.

The state's report, which compiles the work of two independent consultants hired to conduct the investigation, devotes more than 70 pages to findings of corrupt management practices.

'Regard for the Children'

"Political patronage, union pressure, and cronyism is a consistent motivation, at all levels, in the hiring, firing, promoting, and deployment of staff,'' the report says.

Employment practices are "conducted without regard to the significance such decisions will have upon the education of the children,'' it continues.

The report also charges that on at least one occasion contract-bidding laws were violated.

Richard A. Kaplan, director of the state's office of compliance, said the report would be turned over to law-enforcement officials to investigate the charges.

"As is true of other enterprises that reach such an advanced stage of decay,'' the report concludes, "the Jersey City School District offers a compelling case for bolder, more decisive and nontraditional intervention by higher public authorities.''

Mayor Anthony R. Cucci, who is named in the report as among those who have improperly intervened in district affairs, said last week that he would need time to determine whether the report "could be substantiated by fact'' before he would comment on the allegations.

But he added that he would not challenge the state's efforts at this point.

"If the state can help us improve the quality of the education our children receive, I will not stand in the way of state involvement,'' Mr. Cucci said in a statement.

'Aggressive Recruiting'

Mr. Cooperman said he had already begun "aggressively recruiting'' a new superintendent in order to "put people on the alert'' that the position would be filled immediately if the takeover went through.

Once a superintendent is found, he or she will work with state officials to establish a new, 15-member board of education.

That board will serve in an advisory capacity for the first three years of the takeover. In the fourth year, an election will be held to choose nine board members, who will serve terms of up to three years.

The state would remain in control for at least five years, or until the district meets certification requirements.

If the district challenges the takeover attempt in its June 3 response, its arguments and the state's will first be heard by an administrative-law judge within 20 days. Even if that judge finds in favor of the district, Mr. Cooperman may override the decision and begin takeover activities.

Under the intervention law, the education department has six months in which to complete a managerial overhaul.

But if the city chooses to challenge the attempt directly in a state court, the takeover could be delayed until late 1989.

In the meantime, district officials must also appear at a hearing before Mr. Cooperman in Trenton on June 7. That hearing is to determine whether the state should gain control of the school system's fiscal and personnel operations.

Walter J. McCarroll, assistant commissioner for the division of county and regional services, said that "on the basis of the evidence, we feel it is necessary at this point to exercise some control.''

The district could appeal this step to both the state board of education and state courts. But Mr. McCarroll said he was confident that the motion would go unchallenged at the June 7 hearing, and that the state would take partial control of the district by the end of the month.

If that happens, Mr. McCarroll said, no staff changes will be made immediately. But the current staff will be monitored, he said, because after the takeover begins, "they may not be acting in the best interest of the children.''

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