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Citing Problems, N.J. Chief Moves To Take Over Newark Schools

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Commissioner of Education Mary Lee Fitzgerald of New Jersey last week took the last step before a takeover of the state's largest school system by ordering the Newark school district to undergo a comprehensive compliance investigation.

Ms. Fitzgerald announced the move with Gov. James J. Florio at her side to lend support for what is likely to become a political struggle between district and state officials.

The commissioner also assigned two auditors to begin immediately the task of overseeing and strengthening the fiscal affairs of the district.

The action followed a state-commissioned external review of the 47,000-student district that documents what Ms. Fitzgerald called "extensive and systemic problems.''

The report indicates that the district has been out of compliance with education department standards for at least nine years. The Newark schools have mismanaged resources, are rife with nepotism, cronyism, and political interference, and have adopted practices that inhibit student achievement, the report alleges.

"Too many programs seem to have been created and expanded to chase monies available from other levels of government, without thought as to whether it is in the best interest of the children,'' the report says.

"Therefore, we see overemphasis on running basic-skills programs, rather than getting children successfully out of them,'' it adds.

The study also notes that the problems exist in a district where the per-pupil expenditure of $9,150 is significantly higher than both the state average, $7,884, and the $7,592 spent per pupil by the state's 30 poor, urban "special needs'' districts.

Looking at specific spending decisions, the report found that Newark spends $169 per child for food service, compared with an average of $23 by the special-needs districts. On the other hand, Newark spends $15 per student on teaching supplies, while the special-needs average is $68.

'Islands of Excellence'

Still, the report also found "islands of excellence,'' such as an elementary school marked by "strong educational programs, inspired leadership, and active parental support.''

"This action ... represents the state's statutory obligation on behalf of the children it serves to take one more step in determining why the cited deficiencies have not been addressed in Newark, why the adults charged with the responsibility of providing the community's school children with the public education they deserve have not met their obligations, why the deficiencies cited by the state since 1984 remain so blatantly unattended,'' Ms. Fitzgerald said.

Cooperation Promised

While promising to cooperate fully with the auditors, Eugene C. Campbell, the executive superintendent of the Newark schools, questioned why the auditor's post had not been filled previously.

"That position was always here,'' Mr. Campbell said in a statement. "It is not the failure of the district to fill this position--it's the state's responsibility.''

He also questioned why Ms. Fitzgerald had not ordered a corrective-action plan and described the district as already moving "post-haste and with deliberate speed in correcting deficiencies.''

Should the state decide to seize control of the district, however, the district will do "whatever it takes to stop it,'' said Toni R. Randolph, a spokeswoman for the district.

Based on the state's experience with other troubled districts, the investigation is likely to take about a year. At that point, the commissioner will decide if the state will take over the entire operations of the district or if the district is capable of making the necessary improvements with or without state oversight.

Meanwhile, the two auditors will start work at the board of education's offices in downtown Newark, where local officials will need their approval on spending in excess of $20,000.

In addition to educational concerns, the state also has a vast financial investment in Newark. The state contributed $354 million to the district's $488 million 1992-93 budget, while the local tax levy raised $80 million.

In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to take over the wholesale operation of a school district. That year, it took over the Jersey City schools, and in 1991 it assumed control of the Paterson district.

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