One Year After Takeover by State, Cautious Optimism in Jersey City

By Lynn Olson — October 03, 1990 15 min read
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One year ago this week, the state of New Jersey assumed total control of this city’s public schools, replacing its superintendent and school board with its own hand-picked management team.

The radical step--the only state takeover of a district in the nation--was viewed by many as the last hope for a system so hamstrung by incompetence, political interference, and corruption that it was incapable of improving itself.

Today, observers say, there is “reason for optimism” in Jersey City.

But it is too soon to tell whether state officials can accomplish what decades of local administrators could not: a quality education for 28,000 students, 87.5 percent of whom are black, Asian, or Hispanic.

“The worst thing for a government to do is to have to take over one of its instrumentalities,” says Robert E. Boose, acting executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. “In taking over a school system, you’re taking over a town.”

“What the state risks in taking it over,” he adds, “is that if it doesn’t do any better, then power perceived may be better than power implemented.”

Nine states--Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia--have laws that authorize them to intervene in school districts that are failing for academic, political, or fiscal reasons.

In several states, officials have assumed partial control of a district’s fiscal or personnel procedures or appointed a monitor to work with local officials.

But in no place, other than Jersey City, has a state actually tried to run a school system itself.

By 1989, most observers concede, New Jersey’s second-largest school district had reached its nadir. After five years of cajoling and admonitions from the state, a compliance investigation begun in 1987 documented more than 2,000 pages and three volumes worth of abuses.

The shortcomings ranged from “deplorable” physical facilities, to corrupt and inefficient fiscal practices, to employees who owed their jobs more to political connections than to talent.

During the 1986-87 school year, the city’s four neighborhood high schools produced more dropouts than graduates. Student absenteeism districtwide routinely exceeded 10 percent. And standardized-test scores were among the lowest in the state.

According to the report, the “systemic failure” of the district had resulted in “thousands of children ... being deprived of the educational services that constitute a thorough and efficient system of education.”

On Oct. 4, 1989, following a protracted court battle, the state formally took control of the district. In one of his first moves, then-Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman replaced the system’s superintendent with Elena J. Scambio, a take-charge administrator from Essex County who had never run an urban school system.

The plain-spoken Ms. Scambio soon discovered that a ream of reports had just “scratched the surface” of Jersey City’s problems.

After her arrival, for instance, an internal audit revealed that 200 retired employees were still receiving medical coverage under the district’s health-benefits plan. The illegal practice has cost the school system more than $5 million in the past five years.

More important, she encountered a school system fragmented and lacking in direction and purpose. “Decisions were being made that were not always in the best interests of children,” she says. “There was duplication of effort. When you asked, ‘Who’s in charge of this program?’ three or four people had a tiny piece of it with little or no accountability.”

By law, Ms. Scambio was required to reorganize the system’s central administration within her first six months in office. On April 4--the day of reckoning--117 central-office employees were either reassigned, fired, or demoted to other jobs.

Because of provisions in the law enabling tenured employees and civil servants to exercise their seniority rights and return to previous positions, most of those people remain in the school system. But they are now out in the schools.

“When you talk about resistance to change,” Ms. Scambio grimly concedes, “that’s part of it. Many of them are still around.”

At the same time, the 43-year-old administrator has tried to decentralize the district by moving authority and accountability closer to teachers and principals.

The city’s 35 buildings are now grouped into four “clusters,” each of which includes a high school and its surrounding elementary schools. Each cluster is administered by an associate superintendent who is responsible for its performance.

The Newark native has also revamped the district’s fiscal practices, developed a five-year agenda for renovating and maintaining physical facilities, and begun an affirmative-action program to hire minorities. A corrective-action plan, designed to address the deficiencies that resulted in the takeover, is expected to be completed this fall.

“As I see it, we’re laying the tracks,” says Robert E. Perry, chairman of the 17-member advisory board appointed by the state to replace Jersey City’s board of education. “Ultimately, there’s going to be a train coming, and that train will be better education for the kids.”

Other changes are already having a more direct effect on the schools.

One of Ms. Scambio’s top priorities has been to deliver maintenance and renovation services to the district’s ailing school buildings, many of which are over 100 years old.

“I’ve said that buildings have to be clean, healthy, and safe, and demonstrably show a proper respect for teaching and learning,” she explains.

Anne E. Butler, principal of William L. Dickinson High School, notes that her cafeteria was renovated within a month after Ms. Scambio assumed office, following more than five years of fruitless requests to the district.

At Public School 33, bathrooms are being installed in the kindergartens, the auditorium is being remodeled, a gymnasium is under construction, and a playground will be finished in about a month.

In addition, hazardous wastes have been removed from school sites; playgrounds, school corridors, and stairwells have been cleaned; American flags have been hung outside every school; and principals have been given direct supervision over building custodians.

Peter Vanechanos, a 5th-grade teacher at Public School 14, who has taught in the school system for 21 years, says: “We have more materials to work with now, that’s for sure. We have more desks and more books and, so far, everything I’ve asked for I’ve gotten. That’s a big change.”

The district has also divided its five large high schools into “houses” of several hundred students each.

“Particularly for me, this was a great thing,” says Ms. Butler of Dickinson, which, with 2,200 students, is the largest high school in the city.

Under the plan, she says, the school has gotten four new administrators and “much more accountability for ourselves, for our teachers, and for the kids. We were so big, some of the kids were getting lost.”

Other changes include expanding the district’s prekindergarten programs, instituting full-day kindergarten for the first time, purchasing a core of musical instruments and hiring additional music teachers for the elementary grades, and launching an after-school program for elementary-school students next month.

In addition, the city’s bilingual-education program, which used to require parents to bring their children by public transportation to a handful of schools throughout the city, has been redistributed among all of the school clusters.

The district has also filed tenure charges against 20 staff members. Twenty-two teachers have been denied raises for reasons including absenteeism and poor performance. And civil-service disciplinary charges have been filed against another 25 non-instructional employees.

“I found that the administration--the principals and vice principals--were really picking up on teachers that weren’t doing their jobs and weeding them out,” says Anne Michals, a kindergarten teacher at Public School 23.

“In our building alone,” she adds, “the attendance went up almost immediately among teachers.”

Systemwide, teacher absenteeism is down only slightly, says Jeffrey Graber, state executive assistant to Ms. Scambio, but the administration is working on the problem.

Yet, despite the whirlwind of activities, many teachers and principals say that they have been left largely untouched by the takeover.

“No difference,” commented Emily Fogerty, a basic-skills teacher at Public School 14, when asked what had changed. “Times change, and you change with them, but I don’t think that there’s any great big difference.”

John B. Harris, a 7th-grade teacher at the school who has been in the system for 28 years, notes: “It’s easy to say what’s wrong and what should be done, or what shouldn’t be done. But from the outside looking in, sometimes you might think things are easier than they are.”

The same views were expressed by a number of principals, whom Ms. Scambio says will be pivotal to the success of the reform efforts.

“Principals are the key,” she asserts. “What happens at the top is you create a set of standards for the district. You create a different sense of mission. You create high expectations. You require people to work harder or better.”

“But the bottom line,” she insists, “where the rubber meets the road, is in the classroom, where people are teaching kids. And they’re being evaluated by principals.”

So far, Ms. Scambio has required principals to establish their own budgets--along with priority areas--in consultation with school employees and parents. Over time, she hopes to give them more control over the hiring and firing of their faculty.

This month, Jersey City will launch a school-based-management program in eight schools to provide principals, teachers, parents, and others with greater say over their building’s policies and procedures.

But it is clear that many believe there is a long way to go in turning around the district--with some principals contending that the much-ballyhooed changes amount to so much window-dressing and shuffling of personnel.

“I’m very disappointed,” says John J. Phillips, principal of Public School 34 and president of the Jersey City Administrators’ and Supervisors’ Association. “It’s almost as if an adversarial type of feeling has evolved: us against them.”

“We still have, in some respects, top-down management,” he adds.

Similar feelings were expressed by Tom J. Favia, vice president of the Jersey City Education Association. “We haven’t seen any great changes yet,” he maintains. “I’ve seen a lot of things on paper.”

In addition, several critics both inside and outside the school system allege that too many of the district’s top-level administrators have been hired from suburban districts, rather than relying on local talent. They also assert that the salaries for Ms. Scambio ($100,000 a year) and her associate superintendents ($74,000 to $78,000 annually) are too high.

“It seems to me that you should show what you can do first,” says Elnora Watson, president of the Urban League of Hudson County, based in Jersey City.

Mr. Perry says that of the new administrative hires, about half have come from within the school system. “People are just looking at the high-profile positions,” he maintains.

But the real test may come in the next few months, as the school system completes the third round of principal evaluations required by the takeover law.

The assessments already have created waves of anxiety among Jersey City principals, who are afraid of losing their jobs or being demoted.

Henry Miller, executive director of the New Jersey Principals’ and Supervisors’ Association, says his organization has appealed to the state Commissioner of Education asking for a review of the entire process.

Mr. Miller argues that the evaluation criteria are unclear and that principals were not told why they were unsatisfactory or what they could do to improve.

Ms. Scambio’s decision about the principals’ fate “will be very significant in terms of beginning to address educational proficiencies in the purest sense of the word,” predicts Walter McCarroll, the state’s former assistant commissioner for county and regional services who monitored the takeover. “The research is pretty consistent that the quality of education that takes place in a building is influenced greatly by the leadership ability of the principal.”

Meanwhile, most people warn that it will be three to five years before the public sees significant changes in Jersey City’s bottom line: student dropout rates, test scores, and other indicators of achievement.

The performance of district students on the state’s High School Proficiency Test actually fell this year after the takeover occurred. It was already among the lowest in the state.

Ms. Scambio has described the test results as “outrageous.” And she is putting together a task force to address the problem.

“Over the course of the next three to five years,” she asserts, “I think we’ll see huge changes.”

But some people appear unwilling to wait that long, predicting that visible improvements must occur by the end of this year for Ms. Scambio to maintain community support.

Meanwhile, the dogged administrator is continuing to do battle against her most notorious enemy: politics. In a city renowned for political interference and patronage (Jersey City has the only Teamsters'-union local run by a federal judge), Ms. Scambio is fighting for her life.

One of the greatest achievements of her tenure, several observers said, is that city hall has ceased to play a direct role in the district’s operations, in part a result of the cooperation of Mayor Gerald McCann.

But the relationship between the two has not been easy. This year, Gov. Jim Florio and Commissioner of Education John Ellis stepped in to moderate a dispute between the two leaders regarding the city’s tax base.

Mayor McCann argued that the takeover was creating an excessive drain on the city’s property taxes. Ms. Scambio, infuriated that the city owed the district money at a time when she was struggling to bring its budget under control, wanted help.

This fall, the legislature is expected to consider a bill that will provide the city with $4 million in municipal aid to offset the takeover costs. The bill will also permit the school district to build a surplus without the risk of losing needed state dollars.

But the issue of money still looms like a cloud over the takeover debate. During the court proceedings, foes of state control argued that the real problem in Jersey City, as in other urban areas, was inadequate financing.

Since the takeover, the district’s budget has increased from $197.3 million in 1989-90 to $210 million in 1990-91. Ms. Scambio says this is still the smallest increase the district has received in five years.

But she does not deny that money is important. As a result of the state’s new school-finance law, the Quality Education Act, Jersey City and 29 other impoverished districts will receive a windfall of new funds beginning in fiscal 1992. In Jersey City, the additional state contribution could run between $30 million and $40 million annually.

Ms. Scambio says the funds will enable her, among other things, to find space to expand prekindergarten and alternative-education programs.

But it will also muddy the waters about whether money--or management--is the real key to effective school systems.

According to Commissioner Ellis, “leadership, integrity, and money were the three factors operating” against Jersey City.

“It’s sort of like love and marriage,” he asserts, “you can’t have one without the other.”

Meanwhile, the state legislature is considering the feasibility of hiring an outside evaluator to assess the Jersey City effort, according to Joseph V. Doria Jr., the Speaker of the General Assembly.

“I’m hearing pros and cons,” the Representative of Jersey City and Bayonne says. “People feeling that what’s taking place may be just a different form of what existed.”

“You can’t go by what people’s comments are,” he cautions, “because different people have different axes to grind. That’s why you need to have an objective evaluation process.”

For parents, at least, this year is a time of suspended judgment and tentative hope. “The parents that I have dealings with are pleased,” says Ms. Michals, who is also chairman of the Jersey City Parent-Teachers Association. “They don’t want to make any rash decisions about it, but they’re pleased.”

Agrees Chris Golden, president of the p.t.a. at Public School 33: “I feel like you have to give them a chance. Everything right now is really crazy, but I see some good things happening as well as some things that really don’t make much sense.”

The question now is whether the state will move to take over another urban system. Five districts are currently in “level three” of the state’s monitoring process, the last phase before a takeover can be recommended.

The Paterson district is in the final stages of a compliance review that is scheduled to be completed by the end of December. Already, the local teachers’ union and some area businessmen have backed the idea of state control.

“Obviously, I can’t comment on what I will do until I see what the report is,” Commissioner Ellis says.

But he emphasizes that takeover is a measure of last resort. A new monitoring system that he will propose to the legislature this term is designed to “provide help more quickly to districts that are failing,’' he says. Among other things, it would enable external-review teams to be sent into a faltering school system earlier in the monitoring process. And it would relieve the burden on districts that are successful by reducing the monitoring cycle from once every five years to once every seven years.

“Takeover is the atom bomb of the arsenal,” Mr. Ellis warns. “It’s such a severe penalty that most states are reluctant to invoke it.”

“When, however, children are suffering,” he adds, “and there is little or no hope that the people in power will change that, it becomes necessary ... to protect the lives of our children.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 1990 edition of Education Week as One Year After Takeover by State, Cautious Optimism in Jersey City


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