Partial Takeover of District Backed

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An administrative law judge last week cleared the way for New Jersey state officials to take control of the Jersey City public schools' fiscal and personnel operations, saying a partial state takeover was necessary to "prevent the current conditions in the district from deteriorating.''

The judge's July 25 ruling marked the latest step in the state's unprecedented attempt to assume full control over a district that it has declared "academically bankrupt.'' A handful of states permit such action, but none prior to New Jersey had attempted to strip local officials of all decisionmaking authority.

In a related development, Education Commissioner Saul A. Cooperman last month removed himself as final arbiter over the takeover dispute and transferred that responsibility to Lloyd J. Newbaker, the state's assistant commissioner for vocational education.

Lawyers for the Jersey City district had charged that Mr. Cooperman has made public statements showing bias against the system, indicating that he would not be an impartial adjudicator.

Corruption Alleged

The Jersey City takeover proceedings began on May 24 with the state's release of a massive report describing widespread political patronage, corruption, and mismanagement within the state's second- largest district.

At that time, state officials asked Administrative Law Judge Kenneth Springer to grant a motion for "emergent relief,'' which would allow them to take partial control over district affairs while deliberations continue in the full takeover dispute.

The judge granted the state control over all district expenditures in excess of $5,000, as well as all personnel decisions requiring action by the local school board, according to a spokesman for the state's office of administrative law.

State control "should be no broader than necessary to maintain the status quo,'' Judge Springer said. But he added that "it is more than absolutely necessary to prevent current conditions in the district from deteriorating.''

The state had also sought control over the Jersey City schools' communications operations, but Judge Springer denied that request, saying that it "would not be necessary to maintain the status quo'' for the district's 29,000 students.

The judge's ruling on partial control will be considered by the state board of education, which will then make a recommendation to Mr. Newbaker.

The assistant commissioner will have 45 days in which to decide whether to adopt the judge's ruling.

If Mr. Newbaker decides to assume partial control over the district, Jersey City officials may appeal that action in the state courts.

Cooperman May Testify

By removing himself as final arbiter in the dispute, Mr. Cooperman could be called by Jersey City lawyers to testify in the hearings, according to Cummings A. Piatt, assistant commissioner for the division of executive services.

David H. Pikus, the district's lawyer, has said that he may call on the commissioner to testify because of his extensive knowledge of the investigation.
In a July 21 statement, Mr. Cooperman said he was recusing himself from the case because "it is conceivable that my public statements, rather than the performance of those in charge of this school district, could become the focus of this case.''

"In my view, prompt and speedy resolution of the issues raised in the [take-over attempt] are more important to the public good than the issue of who decides the case,'' he said.

Mr. Cooperman has already stated that, in the event of a takeover, he would fire the district's superintendent and top administrators, replace the school board, and appoint a state superintendent to run the city's 36 schools for at least five years.

Mr. Cooperman said he selected Mr. Newbaker as his replacement because the assistant commissioner has had little involvement in the investigation.

Mr. Pikus, Jersey City's lawyer, was unavailable for comment last week.

In other action, Judge Springer prevented the Jersey City district's lawyers from querying state officials about a criminal probe into an alleged kickback scheme involving the state's office of vocational education. The lawyers said they were trying to demonstrate that the state agency itself is riddled with corruption.

The judge also barred the district from introducing evidence that students' test scores have improved slightly in the city.

Hearings in the case are expected to continue through October.

Vol. 07, Issue 39 Extra Edition

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