Citing 'Inept' Management, N.J. Chief Targets Paterson Schools for Takeover

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The education commissioner of New Jersey began legal proceedings this month for a takeover of the state's third largest school district, charging that the Paterson public schools have robbed students of a sound education through decades of severe mismanagement.

Commissioner John Ellis gave Paterson school officials until April 26 to show why the state should not seize control of the 24,500-student district.

The state chief predicted last week that three volumes of documents chronicling what he said was a history of "inept" management would be difficult to refute.

"If additional information would be introduced during court proceedings, I'd be open-minded to considering it," Mr. Ellis said. "But right now, I feel comfortable that the evidence supported the decision" to begin the takeover process.

The Paterson school board, which contends that the district's inadequacies stem largely from a state system of school finance that was struck down last year, has vowed to fight the move.3

The radical step would be the second district takeover in New Jersey for failure to comply with state educational standards. In October 1989, the state assumed control of the Jersey City district, the state's second largest, replacing the local superinten dent with a successor who reorga nized the staff, laid off employees, and decentralized school control. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1989.

While the Jersey City takeover was justified primarily on the grounds of political corruption in the local district, such a move against Paterson would be in response to what Mr. Ellis characterized as "ineptness, lack of appropriate man agement, failure to act, bickering, poor policy management, failure to assign teachers, and hire the right people for the job."

Those and other charges, Paterson school officials maintain, stem mainly from grossly inadequate state funding. They readily acknowledge such problems cited by the state as inadequate and overcrowded facilities, numerous violations of building codes, a lack of school libraries, and inadequate staffing.

A Paterson takeover would be the first since the state supreme court ruled that New Jersey's educational finance system unconstitutionally deprived urban-district students of a "thorough and efficient" education.

The president of the city's school board, Elease Evans, pointed out last week that the 1990 decision in the finance case, Abbott v. Burke, specifically mentioned Paterson as one of the urban districts burdened by the finance system.

Eli Burgos, a former school-H board member, added: "The com plexities of our problems were such that huge sacrifices had to be made to correct the deficiencies, and those sacrifices would only cause noncompliance in other areas."4

Otherwise, he said, "It would be robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Under a new state finance law-- the Quality Education Act, adopted last summer--the Paterson schools were to get $47.6 million in extra aid for the 1991-92 school year.3

But revisions to the law, approved last month, shaved $16.4 million from that infusion. Because of strict spending caps also passed by the leg islature, the district will ultimately receive only a $21.4-million boost. The bulk of that amount, district offi cials say, will be consumed by escalat ing insurance costs and needed in creases in at-risk and special- education programs.

And, with a takeover apparently imminent, they argue, any improve ments the district might have seen with even the reduced additional aid will likely remain unknown.

"The education department is not very honest in fighting for a thor ough and efficient education, what they called a tee," Ms. Evans said. "They found a new acronym in the qea, but the legislature immedi ately shot it down."

But supporters of a takeover say the district's problems go well be yond money.3

And even Paterson's mayor favors state seizure of the city's schools.

Mayor William Pascrell, who is also a Democratic state legislator, said the city government would not take on an adversarial role during the proceedings.

"We will do everything we can to help" the state's action, Mr. Pascrell said last week. "It's time to turn to the next chapter in education in PaH terson, N.J." "The political charges are just oke," added Melindo A. Persi, su perintendent of the Passaic County Schools, an administrative district encompassing Paterson and other independently governed districts 3within the county.

"It's tragic that it's come to this; we agree," he continued. "But we've got to put this behind us and go on ward and upward."

In 1989, Mr. Persi said, the PaterH son school board had to return 836,000 to the state because it failed to spend the money for the programs for which it was allocated. Last year, the district returned $1.2 million, he said, and he predicted that a substantial portion of the $5 million allocated for specific projects this year would also be returned.

"They're talking out of both sides of their mouths" about the adequacy of state funding, Mr. Persi charged.

"They've turned back more money to the state than most districts see in a lifetime."

Mr. Persi said a lack of communica tion between the city's schools and Paterson's central administration, not between administrators themelves, had paralyzed the district. For example, he said, for three years he has demanded that the dis trict develop a plan for substitute- teacher hiring and assignment, and for three years the money allocated for the plan has been returned.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Persi added, district officials shut down a three- year-old school with severe structur al deficiencies to allow an engineer to investigate. But as of last week, he said, no one had figured out what to do with its students once they re turn this week from spring break.

'Academic Bankruptcy' Law

State officials say the Paterson dis trict has not been certified under any system of state standards since 1976. In 1984, the district failed the state's first level of monitoring. In 1987, un der state supervision, Paterson failed the second level of monitoring. A pan el of educators and education-depart ment staff members was then asgned to the district; again, it was unable to meet state standards.

A final study, completed by the department of education and two private consulting firms, was com pleted April 1. After reviewing the findings, Commissioner Ellis on April 12 announced his decision to initiate takeover action.

The process follows procedures established by a 1988 law authorizing the state to take control of local systems deemed "academically bankrupt" and unable to provide a "thorough and efficient" education.

The battle between state and city education officials is likely to end up in court if the state presses ahead with takeover plans after April 26.

Vol. 10, Issue 31

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