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New Jersey officials could take control of the troubled Newark school district as early as the fall, as a judge has rejected a hearing process that could have delayed the takeover by a year.

Referring to academic achievement in the state's largest district as "dismal" and "intolerable," Administrative Law Judge Stephen G. Weiss on April 13 strongly recommended that the state take over the district.

"The state cannot continue to stand aside for another year...while the school system in its largest city continues demonstrably to deteriorate," Judge Weiss said in a 58-page ruling.

The judge ruled in favor of a motion by the state department of education to bypass a lengthy public-hearing process during which Newark school officials could have presented evidence against the need for a state takeover.

District officials have opposed the attempted takeover at every turn, and the Newark school board issued a statement declaring its intention to appeal Judge Weiss's decision.

The state took over the Jersey City district in 1989 and the Paterson district in 1991. During the state's effort to take over Jersey City, the district spent more than $1.2 million in legal fees for the 103 days of the hearing process. Paterson officials essentially agreed to the takeover process, which was completed in about four months.

The state began monitoring the 48,000-student Newark district in 1984 and initiated the takeover process there with a "comprehensive compliance investigation" in 1993.

'Belated reforms'

State officials have charged in numerous reports and legal motions that while Newark's schoolchildren languish academically, school board members and district officials appear more interested in preserving such perks as free cars and junkets to educational conferences in places like Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands than in academic improvement.

In making a summary ruling, Judge Weiss said he did not take into account allegations about board members and district officials because the facts were in dispute. But he discussed at length Newark students' "abysmal" performance on state standardized tests.

For example, in 1993, only one 11th-grade student in four passed the reading, writing, and mathematics sections of the state's high school proficiency test. In an 8th-grade "early warning" test last year, only four of 38 schools had more than 10 percent of their 8th graders qualifying as "clearly competent."

"By any valid measure, students in Newark, generally, are failing in large numbers to meet even minimal state standards of competence," the judge wrote.

Local Official 'Shocked'

Newark officials have argued that they are taking steps to reform the school system on their own. But the judge criticized the district's "substantially belated" effort, saying the proposed reforms lack substance.

"Implementation of meaningful change in this school district has not been of major concern, no less a top priority," Judge Weiss wrote.

"There are no golden promises attached to a state takeover," he added, but it "is the only sensible course of action left if Newark's students are to receive the statutory and constitutional educational entitlements which are due to them."

The district has until April 26 to file a response to the judge's ruling. The state then has five days to reply, after which Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz will have 45 days to accept, change, or reject the ruling. Most observers expect the commissioner to recommend a takeover to the state board, which must give final approval. The district could then take the matter to court.

Newark school officials could not be reached for comment last week. But the Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark quoted the city school board's president, Evelyn Williams, as saying she was "shocked" by the ruling.

"Many of the people who had not given an opinion on the matter...are offended by the decision and are now anti-state takeover," she reportedly said.

Peter B. Contini, the assistant commissioner of education who is overseeing the takeover effort, said in a written statement that he was "very pleased" with the judge's ruling.

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