Board in New Jersey Completes Takeover Of Troubled District

By Lisa Jennings — October 11, 1989 6 min read
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The New Jersey Board of Education last week authorized a full state takeover of the Jersey City, N.J., schools, citing evidence of the district’s “total educational failure.”

Approved unanimously by the board on Oct. 4, the action ended a year-long battle over whether the system’s troubles were serious enough to merit the ouster of its leadership and the imposition of state control.

The move, which was effective immediately, marked the final step in the complicated procedure established by a 1988 law authorizing state officials to take control of systems deemed “academically bankrupt” and unable to provide a “thorough and efficient” education.

The Jersey City action marks only the second time that a state has taken full control of an academically failing school district. The first came in January, when the Kentucky Board of Education assumed control of the Floyd County and Whitley County school districts.

Eight states--Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia--now have laws permitting full takeovers by the state of troubled districts. Kentucky passed the first such law in 1984, but New Jersey’s--considered the most broad-reaching--has generated the most interest nationally as a model for “accountability.”

The 15-member New Jersey board upheld separate rulings by an administrative-law judge and the state’s assistant education commissioner, Lloyd Newbaker. Both officials had concluded that Jersey City schools suffer from “severe, longstanding, deep-rooted deficiencies permeating virtually all aspects of the district’s operations.”

“We find it deplorable that by virtue of the persistent and ongoing failure of this district to properly fulfill its delegated responsibilities, its students have so long been deprived of their constitutional due,” the board said in a statement.

A four-year state review of the district revealed chronic problems with cronyism, nepotism, fiscal mismanagement, an indifferent administration, and crumbling buildings badly in need of repair.

‘Vindication’ Seen

Commissioner of Education Saul B. Cooperman, who had recused himself from formal decision-making in the case because of his past vocal criticisms of the Jersey City system, celebrated the board’s ruling. He “felt vindicated” by last week’s action, he said at a press conference.

“We can now step in on behalf of the innocent victims of the Jersey City school system--the children who have not received the educational opportunity to which they are entitled,” he said.

Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who fought for more than a year to get the legislature to pass the takeover measure, also praised the board’s action.

“When I first conceived of the plan to rescue academically bankrupt school districts, I hoped it would never be used,” he said. “But with this precedent-setting step, students, teachers, and parents in Jersey City and around the state can get the education they want and deserve.”

“We could ill afford even a single day more with the children of New Jersey’s second-largest school district subjected to educational child abuse,” the Governor said.

The board also approved Mr. Cooperman’s appointment of Elena J. Scambio as the district’s new superintendent. She pledged that “the city that lies within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty can become a fitting example of educational excellence.”

Ms. Scambio, a former superintendent in Essex County and state coordinating county superintendent for the northern region, has overseen the state’s partial control of Jersey City’s fiscal and personnel operations for the past year. She will earn an annual salary of $100,000.

The state-operated administration will be in effect for at least five years, or until the district can achieve state certification. At that point, the local community will again take control.

“We don’t want to operate the Jersey City system permanently,” Mr. Cooperman emphasized. “However, we want to stay in the district long enough to assure that the children there are receiving the thorough and efficient educational opportunity guaranteed to them by New Jersey’s constitution.”

Reorganization Outlined

Saying that she “does not have the slightest doubt that students from even the most impoverished and difficult backgrounds can succeed academically and socially,” Ms. Scambio outlined a four-point plan for reorganizing the district.

Her first initiative, she said, will be to “cut through the dead hand of bureaucracy” by streamlining the organizational structure. Her plans call for creating “clear lines of authority and responsibility, and incorporating accountability as the bottom line.”

Secondly, she said, she will strive to strengthen and empower the schools themselves. “Now is the time to fish, cut bait, or get out of the boat,” said Ms. Scambio. “Every school will have a captain, and each and every captain will be held accountable.”

Her third initiative will be to rework the system’s $180-million annual budget this year.

“The rights of children are paramount,” she said, “but the rights of taxpayers will be considered.”

Lastly, Ms. Scambio said she will work with city officials to develop long-range plans for the construction of new schools and the renovation and maintenance of existing buildings.

Ms. Scambio indicated that she will require each school administrator to convene school councils made of parents, staff, community members, and students, to develop school-improvement strategies.

She also urged development of a “partnership” between local businesses and the schools.

Employee Evaluations

Under the takeover law, Ms. Scambio has six months to reorganize the entire central administrative and supervisory staff and evaluate all individuals employed in those positions.

She will also be required to establish an assessment unit to evaluate principals, based on criteria to be developed by the commissioner.

By law, at least three evaluations will be conducted for each principal within six months of the district’s reorganization.

After an assessment cycle of one year, Ms. Scambio will have the authority to dismiss any tenured principal for inefficiency, incapacity, unbecoming conduct, or any other just cause, according to a spokesman for the state education department.

Henry Miller, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Principals and Supervisors, said Ms. Scambio will bring “fairness and integrity” to the district.

“For the first time, we can expect principals and supervisors in Jersey City to be treated in a professional manner,” he said last week.

School Board Abolished

Under the takeover law, the state board’s decision had the effect of formally abolishing the district’s nine-member school board, as well as the positions of superintendent and administrators for curriculum, business and finance, and personnel.

The former administrators can claim tenure and seniority in any previous positions they may have held within the district, however.

Franklin Williams, the newly ousted superintendent, will have the right to claim an assistant principal’s position.

Mr. Williams could not be reached for comment last week.

The local board will be replaced by a 15-member advisory panel, which must be selected within 60 days of last week’s action.

Two members of the advisory board will be chosen by city officials, while the others will be appointed by Mr. Cooperman.

Jersey City officials had initially attempted to appeal the takeover. But when Mayor Gerald McCann ran for office last year, his campaign included support for the state takeover.

District officials noted last week that Jersey City’s lawyers have not filed any exceptions to the assistant commissioner’s August ruling, which brought the decision before the state board.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Board in New Jersey Completes Takeover Of Troubled District


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