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N.J. Desegregation-Aid Program on Chopping Block

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In justifying Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's decision to eliminate New Jersey's desegregation-aid program, Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz has accused the preceding administration of improperly distributing the aid for political gain.

The state education department invited applications for the desegregation-aid grants, but then allocated them to districts according to a predetermined list of intended recipients, Mr. Klagholz asserted last month in a letter to Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, one of the program's defenders.

Robert J. Swissler, who oversaw desegregation aid and other discretionary school-funding programs during the administration of Gov. James J. Florio, said in an interview last week that he had never seen or heard of such a list.

The desegregation program "was administered to a 'T,' exactly as the legislature prescribed it should be," said Mr. Swissler, the education department's former assistant commissioner for finance.

And Ms. Weinberg noted in a response to Mr. Klagholz's letter that an internal education department investigation of the desegregation program last year found no undue political influence.

Mr. Klagholz has discounted that investigation, which was conducted under former Commissioner Mary Lee Fitzgerald. He said last month that his review found that investigative staff members did not have enough time to be thorough and were denied access to key documents.

Mr. Klagholz said that his own subsequent investigation found the program was administered in a way designed "to create more budgetary winners" in the legislature--and, thus, to generate political support for Governor Florio's proposed school-finance reforms.

"This particular program was crafted in a way that was purely political," Peter Peretzman, an education department spokesman, said, "and had almost nothing to do with desegregation and almost everything to do with politics."

Barbara Anderson, the education department's current assistant commissioner for student services, maintained that the aid was used mainly to cushion the blow to districts that stood to lose funding under the Florio finance plan.

Painted as Pork

New Jersey's desegregation-aid program was established under Governor Florio, a Democrat, in 1991. Over the next three years, it annually distributed $14 million in funding to about 27 communities, with grants ranging from about $15,000 to nearly $2 million.

The stated purpose of the program was to provide discretionary aid to districts that had undertaken desegregation efforts. The districts applied for the funds by submitting applications to the New Jersey Department of Education's office of equal educational opportunity.

The state's discretionary-aid programs soon came under scrutiny as a result of allegations of political favoritism in the awarding of a special-education grant to the Lyndhurst, N.J., school district. An investigation by the state attorney general found evidence that some state legislators had engaged in ethically questionable lobbying practices in an effort to steer school aid to their districts. (See Education Week, 9/15/93, and related story .)

'Wrongly Distributed'?

Commissioner Klagholz said in his correspondence with Assemblywoman Weinberg that possible irregularities in the desegregation program came to light during that earlier investigation. And while the education department's internal probe found no basis for those allegations, Mr. Klagholz said he disagrees with that conclusion.

"In fact," Mr. Klagholz said, "three districts that were legally entitled to desegregation funds were not provided those funds. Instead, their grant monies were wrongly distributed among other districts in the program."

Officials in the administration of Governor Whitman, a Republican who defeated Mr. Florio in 1993, also charge that some districts spent the money improperly.

"Districts used it for many things not related at all to desegregation," Rita Manno, Governor Whitman's press secretary, contended in an interview last week.

"This is not one of those things that we are going to be negotiating about," Ms. Manno said. "There has been no convincing argument given to the administration that would have them consider restoring it."

Governor Whitman cut the desegregation program's funding by half, or $7 million, in her budget for the current fiscal year. Her proposed budget for fiscal 1996 cuts all funding for the program.

Ms. Weinberg, a Democrat whose district includes Teaneck and Hackensack, and Assemblywoman Nia H. Gill, a Democrat who represents the Newark area, have argued that the state should move to reform the program, not eliminate it entirely.

"If the Governor maintains some funds were being misused," Ms. Gill said, "the most responsible thing would be to cease the aid to that community until appropriate measures were taken. It is certainly not to wipe out all desegregation."

Montclair Mounts Protests

Several New Jersey communities have rallied to defend the school-desegregation program.

Last month, a coalition of activists from Montclair held a news conference and traveled to Trenton, the state capital, to demand that the state continue funding for their school district's desegregation efforts. The district had been receiving annual grants of more than $700,000 until last year.

"Now is the time we should try to force them to put their energy to fixing the process, rather than hiding behind the fact it is flawed as justification for giving out nothing," said Joan Pransky, a coalition spokeswoman.

The coalition, Support Integrated Public Education, includes about a dozen community groups, including the Montclair chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Hackensack and Teaneck parents are organizing similar efforts.

Current education department staff members joined activists from communities that had received the funds in contending the money had been used effectively. They argued that such programs are badly needed in New Jersey, where studies have found the schools to be among the most racially segregated in the nation.

Ms. Weinberg said the state program enabled the Teaneck and Hackensack schools to adopt multicultural curricula, conflict-resolution programs, peer intervention, and teacher sensitivity training. The aid has helped the cities maintain integrated schools, and may even have helped keep their housing integrated, she argued.

"I would not say we are Utopia, but we are head and shoulders above most other communities," Ms. Weinberg said.

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