Court To Weigh In on Who Should Control Newark Schools

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The struggle over control of the Newark, N.J., public schools shifts venues this week to an administrative court, amid reports that federal investigators have begun to examine allegations of corruption in the district.

The first in what is likely to be a protracted series of sessions was scheduled for late this week in Newark before Judge Stephen Weiss, who will ultimately recommend whether the city school board should continue to operate the 48,000-student school district or if the New Jersey education department should take control of the system--the largest in the state.

The state's Office of Administrative Law became involved when Newark officials contested the charges leveled against them by state education officials in a show-cause order in July. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1994.)

"We denied most of the allegations in the order," said Toni Randolph, a spokeswoman for Newark's executive superintendent, Eugene C. Campbell.

The state's "comprehensive compliance investigation" report alleges voluminous educational, governance, management, and financial deficiencies.

Once an administrative-law judge makes a recommendation, Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz will make his own recommendation to the state board of education, the final arbiter of Newark's fate.

The purpose of this week's pre-hearing conference is to set guidelines for the court's fact-finding mission.

Criminal Probes Reported

While the state education department's investigation focused on the district's educational responsibilities, other state and federal agencies are reportedly investigating whether there has been any criminal wrongdoing.

Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the education department, confirmed that it has shared portions of the five-volume compliance-investigation report with the state attorney general's office.

Moreover, The Star-Ledger of Newark has reported that the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Education Department's inspector general are also investigating the Newark school system.

Spokesmen for the U.S. Attorney's office in Newark and the inspector general would not confirm or deny the reports. Ms. Randolph said she was unaware of any federal investigation.

According to The Star-Ledger, the federal probes are focusing on actions that could fall under mail- and wire-fraud statutes. The newspaper also reported that authorities have wired individuals with hidden tape recorders in an effort to secure evidence of criminal misconduct.

The compliance report described a number of practices that could be of interest in criminal probes.

Jersey City Extension

One example is the executive superintendent's scholarship fund, which state investigators charge was financed by district officials exerting pressure on vendors who wanted to do business with the district.

It could take state officials many months to decide the future of the Newark schools if the experience of Jersey City is any indication.

Mr. Vespucci said the administrative-law process generated about 100 days of hearings over a 14-month period when the state moved to seize control of the Jersey City district, the first targeted under New Jersey's takeover law.

"It doesn't necessarily mean it's going to take that long for Newark," he added.

The Paterson district avoided the process by agreeing to a state takeover of its schools.

Both districts continue to be operated by the state, and Commissioner Klagholz recently recommended that the education department retain control of Jersey City until August 1995.

The state board was scheduled to vote on the matter this week.

The pioneering law that allows the state to seize control of a district by removing the local school board and stripping the top level of administration of its authority requires that a targeted district remain under state control for at least five years.

Mr. Klagholz, however, has said that another year of state supervision is necessary to insure that the Jersey City district meets state certification requirements and the mismanagement and patronage that led to its takeover do not recur.

Newark school officials have pointed to the Jersey City system's continuing weaknesses to buttress their argument that having the state run districts does not necessarily produce greater academic achievement.

Newark officials also say that if they are given the chance to proceed with a comprehensive reform plan developed this spring with the assistance of some nationally prominent educators, academic improvements will be forthcoming.

Ms. Randolph said the district will put in place as many of the reforms as it can implement without the help of consultants. The state, she said, has not authorized the $4.4 million it would cost to pay the consultants to continue working on the reform plan.

But state officials argue that the district has had more than a decade to undertake reforms on its own.

Vol. 14, Issue 01

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