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Jersey City Seeks To Block State's Attempted School Takeover

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The Jersey City Board of Education last week voted to block a takeover attempt by state officials, who have declared the urban school district "academically bankrupt.''

In a hearing before an administrative-law judge in Newark last Friday, Jersey City officials challenged the results of a report released by the state last month that described the school system as fraught with political patronage, cronyism, and fiscal mismanagement.

The report, the result of a two-year comprehensive compliance investigation by the state, concluded that district officials were incapable of improving the city's failing schools without state intervention.

A lawyer representing city school officials told the judge Friday that many of the state's allegations were true, but that the problems in Jersey City should be blamed on past city administrations.

The current administration had improved the schools, the lawyer argued. State intervention, he said, would interfere with the "venerated right'' to local control that district officials say effective reform requires.

The judge was expected to begin hearing testimony from both sides Friday. The hearings were to continue this week, state officials said.

Under the terms of the state intervention law, enacted in January, the judge will make a recommendation to Mr. Cooperman on the takeover. But even if the judge rules in favor of Jersey City, the final decision on the takeover rests in the hands of Mr. Cooperman and the state board of education. The district could choose to counter the state's ruling with a full legal challenge in state courts.

In a related development, Mr. Cooperman last week granted an extension to city officials to respond to a move by the state to assume partial control of the district's fiscal and personnel management immediately.

A hearing before the state commissioner that had been scheduled for June 7 was moved to June 22, a spokesman for the state board said.

'Good For Them'

New Jersey is the first state to propose a full takeover of a school district, though several other states have laws enabling them to do so. (See Education Week, June 1, 1988.)

U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week said of the New Jersey takeover attempt, "Good for them! Here's a state that's serious about accountability in education for the sake of the children.''

In his April report, "American Education: Making It Work,'' Mr. Bennett expressed support for state intervention in failing school districts as a decisive accountability measure.

The Council of Chief State School Officers has taken the position that Mr. Cooperman's move on Jersey City was warranted. But Jay P. Goldman, a spokesman for the council, said the group has not adopted a formal policy on state intervention, and views the action as justified only in certain circumstances.

In "Time for Results,'' the National Governors' Association's 1986 report on education, three of the seven gubernatorial task forces recommended some form of state intervention as an accountability measure.

But Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, criticized the New Jersey takeover proposal in an article in School Board News, the association's newsletter.

The role of the state department of education is "necessarily and profoundly recast'' as a result of the takeover attempt, he wrote.

"It's a medical doctor-district attorney kind of switch,'' he contended, "from a supportive diagnostician and healer to a relentless, icy-blooded prosecutor necessarily more preoccupied with documenting the case for takeover than curing the ills'' of the district.

According to Mr. Shannon, the money spent by the state to investigate the district could have been better spent on the schools, and many of Jersey City's problems should be blamed on its socioeconomic setting.

'Gag Order'

Meanwhile, Jersey City school principals last week expressed some support for the state's efforts, despite a "gag order'' instituted by district officials to keep educators from talking to the journalists who flocked to the city to cover the story.

According to Principal Henry R. Przystup, who once served as Jersey City's superintendent, the gag order is a "perfect example'' of the way in which district officials seek to control and limit the activities of staff.

Many principals are afraid to openly criticize the district, he said.

Other principals said they believed the district's refusal over the past three years to sign a bargaining agreement with principals had been a move to punish them for not fighting the state-intervention measure in the legislature.

"Things are much worse than the compliance report shows,'' said a principal, who asked that his name be withheld.

"This district definitely needs outside help,'' said another principal who asked not to be named. "Improvements here will take much longer than the five years the state has said it would stay'' in control.

Others said they were ambivalent about the state's intervention.

"The state has the financial resources to meet the needs of the district, but whether they are willing to spend the money, we don't know,'' said Terence S. Matthews, principal of James J. Ferris High School.

Though the state will be able to fire even tenured principals after the first year if the takeover occurs, Mr. Matthews said he was not worried about losing his job.

"Most principals feel they can withstand evaluation, and that they may even get more support from the state than the district,'' he said.

Marvin Strynar, principal of Cordero Elementary School, commented, "There are times when we can't operate as freely as we like.'' But state politics may simply be a substitute for local politics, in his view.

"There is politics on the state level, too,'' Mr. Strynar said. "Life is politics.''

Mr. Przystup, however, said he believed that the state would be able to turn the school system around.

"I think Saul Cooperman really wants to do something good for the kids here,'' he said. "I'm sure there will be kinks and problems, but if Mr. Cooperman brings in half-decent people who understand theworking-class ethos of a poor Northeastern city, they can do it.''

The state investigation into the problems in Jersey City actually began at his request while he was superintendent of schools in 1984-85, according to Mr. Przystup.

At that time, as now, Mr. Przystup said, he was an outspoken critic of the deep-rooted political intervention that seemed to him to be a way of life in Jersey City.

The former superintendent said he "desperately'' tried to bring about change for the better, but was thwarted by the board and city officials. "Change agents are short-lived and so was I,'' he said.

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