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Newark Schools May Be Headed for State Takeover

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A third school district in New Jersey may be headed for takeover by the state education department.

An external review of the Newark schools, the largest district in the state, was expected to be submitted late last week to Commissioner of Education Mary Lee Fitzgerald.

A report in The Star-Ledger of Newark last week said the state was preparing to launch a comprehensive compliance investigation, the last step before a takeover.

Citing anonymous sources, the newspaper also reported that the review team had found numerous problems in the district.

At a subsequent press conference, however, Ms. Fitzgerald maintained that no decision had been made about the district's fate.

Under a 1988 state law that authorizes the department to seize control of financially or academically bankrupt districts, New Jersey began running the Jersey City schools in 1989 and the Paterson district in 1991.

Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson are the largest cities in the state.

After receiving the report, Ms. Fitzgerald has 30 days to review it and determine the department's next steps.

The commissioner has the authority to direct the district to take specific actions on its own, under departmental monitoring, or to order a comprehensive probe that includes a detailed audit of district finances and problems, according to Edward J. Richardson, a spokesman for the department.

Year-Long Process Seen

If the commissioner does decide a state takeover is called for, the process is likely to take as long as a year, based on the department's experience with the Jersey City schools, he added.

Newark school officials have pledged to fight a takeover, according to Toni Randolph, a spokeswoman for the district.

Meanwhile, the department is moving to take over the fiscal affairs of the Trenton district.

The Trenton school board this month approved the takeover, which Ms. Fitzgerald had sought.

The state will manage the financial and business operations of the district for at least a year. The academic program will remain under the control of local officials.

In announcing the takeover, state officials noted that the district had made improvements to its academic and student-support programs in the past two years.

"We are trying to help Trenton get its fiscal operations on a sound footing to support its school-improvement efforts,'' said Elena J. Scambio, the assistant commissioner for urban and field services.

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