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N.J. Board Poised To Vote on Newark Takeover

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Caution is on the minds of both skeptics and state officials in New Jersey as the education department moves to take control of the state's largest school district.

The pending state takeover of the 48,000-student Newark district--the subject of numerous reports alleging mismanagement, waste, and abysmal student performance--comes just as lawmakers, education experts, and residents are reflecting on whether state control of other troubled urban districts is working.

New Jersey officials took over the Jersey City district in 1989 and the Paterson district in 1991. While the state has been credited with improving the management and physical condition of the schools in Paterson and Jersey City since taking control, academic results have been mixed at best.

And no one denies that the troubled Newark district offers the state an even bigger test.

Moving into the final stages of a lengthy effort to supplant local managers, Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz on May 19 issued a 24-page decision calling for the creation of a "state-operated district" in Newark. Approval by the state school board could come as soon as July.

Mayors Raise Questions

Despite the mixed results in Jersey City and Paterson, Mr. Klagholz said state officials are moving toward the Newark takeover confident in their ability to turn local districts around.

"The state operation has been successful in a lot of ways," the commissioner said in an interview last week. In Jersey City and Paterson, the state had to focus first on improving management and sprucing up facilities before it could concentrate on academics, he said.

"It was natural for those who went in to attend to those things first," Mr. Klagholz said. "But it wasn't as though test scores would automatically fall in line if we dealt with those things."

Local officials in the two cities, however, expressed doubts about whether the state has improved the schools there significantly through direct control.

"I'm convinced the takeovers are doomed to failure and can actually make matters worse," said Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City, a Republican who has gained nationwide attention for his proposal to create an experi~men~t~al school-voucher program in his city.

Mr. Schundler said that cleaning up petty corruption and incompetent administration does not go to the root of the social problems facing disadvantaged students in urban districts.

"Board members driving around in Cadillacs is not the reason children are failing," he said, referring to reports that Newark board members are more interested in perks than in improved student performance.

Schools need the freedom to experiment with innovative methods, Mayor Schundler added--something that he said is not happening under state control in Jersey City or Paterson.

"There has been no innovation in Paterson, no innovation in Jersey City, and there will probably be none in Newark," Mr. Schundler said.

Mayor William J. Pascrell of Paterson offered a mixed opinion about the results of the takeover in his city. He said he supported the state's taking control of the district to rid it of "ineptness." But academic performance has been too slow in improving, he said.

Opposition Withering?

Commissioner Klagholz is taking pains, meanwhile, to try to assuage what has been fierce opposition in Newark to the state's efforts to take control there. The commissioner avoided the use of the word "takeover" in his opinion, instead referring to the creation of a "state-operated district."

A takeover implies "that the community has the problems and the state has the answers," Mr. Klagholz said last week. "That is false. The best the state can be is a catalyst for creating the right environment for the community to address the problems."

The Newark school board has vigorously fought the state. Executive Superintendent Eugene C. Campbell said in a prepared statement that the district has been denied legal due process. But an administrative-law judge ruled last month that a formal hearing, which could have delayed a state takeover by a year or more, was not required because most facts were not in dispute.

Since Mr. Klagholz's ruling, however, there have been signs that the opposition to the state's effort is softening.

Mayor Sharpe James, who just a few weeks ago was at the forefront of Newark leaders fighting the state, recently appeared to accept state control as inevitable.

"Instead of confrontation, I would hope that we can exercise a spirit of cooperation between the city and state," he said. "No matter what positions heretofore [were] taken and whether we were pro or con on the question of a state takeover, we should now give a higher priority to preparing our students to compete in a global society."

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