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Strike Halts Student Tests in State-Run N.J. District

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The struggling Paterson, N.J., district has scrambled to reschedule the administration of tests required for high school graduation after teachers walked off the job last week.

The strike by the Paterson Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, was the first against one of the districts run by the state. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, said the teachers' action demonstrated "a total disregard for the best interests of children." At the district's request, a state superior court judge late last week ordered the teachers back to work by April 13.

The strike began April 8 after negotiations for a new three-year contract, which began in January 1997, broke down over salary issues and the administration proposal to extend the workday by 20 minutes.

Although the 24,500-student district kept schools open with administrators and substitute teachers, about 500 high school students were unable to take the second day of a proficiency test that all students must pass to receive a state-approved diploma. If teachers return to work as ordered, the tests will be made up this week, administrators said.

But some parents worried that even if the exams are given this week, the two-day disruption could leave its mark on students' performance.

"It's bad enough that our children aren't up to par in the state, but now to have this as part of the agenda," Julia Figueroa, the mother of three. "This isn't going to affect all of them, but this will definitely affect some."

Testing Takeover?

The state took over the Paterson district in 1991 following charges the school system was grossly mismanaged.

Some observers saw the strike as a challenge to the state intervention. "This is a test at this point of the state's resolve around the takeover," said Irene Sterling, the executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, a local nonprofit organization that works for improving the quality of schools.

Union leaders, in fact, blamed the takeover for impeding contract talks. During the months-long bargaining, union negotiators contended with significant turnover in the district leadership, said Ed Gallagher, a spokesman for the local. "Taking local accountability out of it has made bargaining very difficult," he argued.

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