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Paterson School Board Petitions To Block State Takeover

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The Paterson, N.J., board of education has petitioned a state court to stop a threatened state takeover of its beleaguered school district, beginning a legal and political battle that both sides hope will be brief.

Responding to an April 12 order to show why the state should not seize control of the district, its lawyer, Joseph J. Ryglicki, replied that the state department of education had greatly exaggerated its charge that the state's third-largest district had been grossly mismanaged.

In a brief filed April 26, he added that state investigators failed to acknowledge the educational progress that Paterson students have made in recent years.

Last month, for example, a state-issued "report card" showed that since 1987 Paterson has more than doubled the percentage of 9th graders who pass the state high-school proficiency test in reading and in writing; there was also a 50 percent increase in the numbers passing the math test. The district, however, is still well below the state's average passing rates.

"We're trying to set the record straight, and in doing so, hopefully we will persuade the commissioner of education that a full takeover is too4drastic a method to remedy the situation," Mr. Ryglicki said. "We're just saying maybe we can all work together and do this the right way."

Last month, Commissioner John Ellis began legal proceedings that observers say will almost surely lead to the second district takeover in New Jersey. (See Education Week, April 24, 1991.) In October 1989, the state assumed control of the Jersey City district, the state's second largest, replacing the local superintendent with a successor who reorganized the staff, laid off employees, and decentralized school control. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1989.)

'A Dangerous Precedent'?

In filing the challenge, the school board shrugged off a threat by Mayor William Pascrell of Paterson that he would sue anyone who spends ''one thin dime" to block the takeover.

Mr. Pascrell, who says the state is the last hope for the city's politicized and failed education system, favors an orderly takeover with the full cooperation of the board and city government.

"I wish they would cease and desist and become part of the solution like everyone else wants to be," Mr. Pascrell said of the district. ''I'm going to use everything in my power to stop this" from becoming a protracted legal duel, he added.

The lengthy court battle that preceded the Jersey City takeover cost that district $1.7 million, and while Mr. Ryglicki admitted such a figure was intriguing to a lawyer, he insisted that he too wants to see the matter resolved quickly--if possible, he said, by July.

But the lawyer also said that the school board must assert itself, despite the mayor's threats, which he called "the cat chasing its tail."

While the seizure of the Jersey City schools was justified mainly on the grounds of political corruption, the charge against the Paterson district is mismanagement. If the state succeeds in taking over the district on such grounds, it could set a dangerous precedent, threatening the concept of local control over education by replacing an elected body with a state-appointed board, Mr. Ryglicki asserted.

"The state claims they don't want to see anymore takeovers, but the precedent they're setting is that almost anytime they find what they call mismanagement, they can take over," he said. "[On] which board can't you find examples of inefficiency?"

Faulting the State's Case

In his response, Mr. Ryglicki said the state's charge that the board and Superintendent Frank Napier Jr. failed "to work cohesively and cooperatively" is based on "a fundamental misunderstanding of the democratic process which recognizes that members of a deliberative body will disagree in the course of dedicated service to significant and intense4public issues."

While acknowledging that the state's documentation of mismanagement is "voluminous"--three volumes of files collected since 1984, when the district failed its first level of monitoring--Mr. Ryglicki claimed the state "lacks a reasonable basis of credible fact for many of the conclusions drawn."

He pointed to what he termed numerous contradictions and inaccuracies in the state's case, such as the claim that the district employs individuals who have not been appropriately certified. In a letter dated April 10, the defense claims, the state wrote that all cases of inappropriate certification had been cleared up.

Mr. Ryglicki said he was confident that some partnership could be set up between the state and the district to remedy the problems of the district without a full takeover.

But Mr. Pascrell was unconvinced.

"They've had plenty of time to interfere [with the takeover] by making the changes the state asked for," he said. "The record has been built over seven years. It didn't happen overnight."

Administrative Law Judge Stephen Weiss late last week gave the district until May 24 to submit its final response. The discovery phase of the case must be complete by June 21, he said, and a hearing date will be set for July.

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