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New Jersey Judge's Ruling Clears Path For State To Take Over School District

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Concluding that the Jersey City, N.J., school board has "so lost its own way that it cannot be counted on to lead the children to educational quality," an administrative law judge recommended last week that the state assume full control over its second-largest school system.

The July 26 decision by Judge Kenneth Springer clears the way for the state to replace the district's superintendent, school board, and top administrative staff, perhaps as soon as October.

That move would represent the highest degree of intervention ever assumed by a state in a local school system's affairs. New Jersey is one of nine states that have enacted "academic bankruptcy" laws that permit state takeovers of educationally substandard districts.

Shortly after the ruling, New Jersey education officials said they may appoint an "on-site team" this week to extend the state's previously court-approved oversight of the district's fiscal and personnel decisions. They also said they may announce their choice for a new superintendent within two weeks.

Jersey City officials initially were vehemently opposed to the state's takeover bid. But the city now has a new mayor and new school-board members who have indicated they are not opposed to state intervention and are unlikely to appeal the ruling, according to state officials.

'Ample Proofs'

The Jersey City district was declared "academically bankrupt" by the state in May 1988, just four months after the intervention law took effect. It authorizes the state education commissioner to assume control over substandard districts for at least five years.

During more than a year of court hearings, the state offered testimony and documents that portrayed the Jersey City district as' fraught with corruption, political interference, and fiscal mismanagement.

In his recommendations last week, Judge Springer said he "strongly supported the need for state takeover to address longstanding problems that the local district has been unable to cure."

"Ample proofs establish that the children attending public school in the district are not receiving the thorough and efficient education to which they are entitled, that political interference originating in earlier school administrations has continued, that public money allotted to education in the district has been misspent, and that district problems chronicled in so many state reports are deep rooted and endemic," the judge concluded.

Appeal Said Unlikely

Lawyers for the state and the district may file exceptions to the judge's recommendations by Aug. 5.

Under the state's administrative-law rules, Lloyd J. Newbaker, the state's assistant commissioner for vocational education, has 45 days in which to accept, reject, or modify the recommendations. Commissioner Saul A. Cooperman would normally make that decision, but he recused himself from the case last year.

The ruling will be reviewed next by the state board of education, and then could be appealed to the state courts.

Although Jersey City officials have the right to contest the ruling, the city's new mayor and his three appointees to the school board have "indicated" they are not opposed to state intervention, said Walter J. McCarroll, the state's assistant commissioner for county and regional services.

William Massa, a lawyer who represents the district in the dispute, agreed that the district is not likely to pursue an appeal "very aggressively."

Franklin L. Williams, Jersey City's school superintendent, refused to comment on the judge's ruling.

If the district does not appeal, the state will take control of all of the system's operations by December, Mr. McCarroll predicted.

State courts last August granted the state partial control over Jersey City's fiscal and personnel decisions.

But Mr. McCarroll said such limited control "is not sufficient to ensure orderly operations for the upcoming school year, and proper management of the district's $187-million fiscal plan."

He said the state may ask Judge Springer to expand its authority over the district's affairs before the full takeover process is completed.

District Held Accountable

During hearings before Judge Springer, lawyers for Jersey City contended that the district's problems were due to mismanagement by previous administrations, inadequate state funding, and social and economic problems in the city beyond the district's control.

The judge rejected those arguments, holding that "school managers cannot be allowed to blame general social conditions, or the state, or the children who are victims, for their own inadequacies."

"They must themselves be held accountable," he wrote.

The judge added that the evidence before him portrayed "a board of education without clear-cut policies and without adequate planning capability; a board which allows city hall to dictate its choice for chief school administrator and then neglects to evaluate him for tenure; a board which is hopelessly divided among warring factions and self-interested cliques; a board which is incapable of providing continuity or any coherent sense of purpose; a board which reacts to state prodding, but is unable to take the initiative to solve its problems."

The district's lawyers also attempted to demonstrate that student academic performance in Jersey City had improved over the past three years.

Mr. McCarroll agreed that average test scores in the district improved slightly 1988 and 1989. But he attributed the increase to the presence of state officials in the district and the threat of the takeover.

Under New Jersey's intervention law, districts must meet state standards in areas including student achievement, attendance, facilities maintenance, desegregation, and fiscal management to obtain state certification and avoid a takeover.

In addition to Jersey City, 11 other districts in the state have failed to obtain certification.

After a district has been taken over, the law permits the state to raise local taxes, evaluate principals, fire tenured administrators after a three-stage evaluation process, and renegotiate contracts with teachers.

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