New Jersey Gets Tough

The state declares its second-largest school district 'academically bankrupt' and takes over

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Given the tradition of local control in American public education, it is virtually unthinkable that a state would seize control of a local school system. But last October, the State of New Jersey did just that, after declaring the schools of Jersey City a "total educational failure." The state dismissed the school board and placed the district under the control of a state-appointed superintendent.

New Jersey is not the first state to take such drastic action: Kentucky assumed control of two failing districts last January. But the collapse of New jersey's second-largest school district and the scandalous events that led to that collapse are unprecedented.

When the state's commissioner of education, Saul Cooperman, first announced plans to take over the Jersey City schools in May 1988, there was no doubt the district was in serious trouble. But if confirmation was needed, a $200,000, four-year evaluation of the city's schools by an independent auditor provided it. The 2,000page document painted a grim picture of a school system rife with corruption, political patronage, mismanagement, and a general lack of concern about low student performance.

Among the report's findings:

District employees were treated "unfairly and with indifference.'' Building administrators were often re- assigned arbitrarily and without warning one or two weeks before the opening of the school year. One former vice principal learned of her reassignment by reading about it in the newspaper a few days before reporting to work.

Patronage, cronyism, nepotism, and union pressure were consistent factors in the hiring, firing, promotion, and deployment of staff. The city's former mayor, Anthony Cucci, admitted that when he was in office he personally recommended individuals-- typically, friends and relatives--for district jobs, ranging from assistant superintendent of schools to bookkeeper.

The school board was either unwilling or unable to exert proper control over its fiscal affairs, and "innumerable'' contract-bidding regulations were violated. In one case, the board benefited from financial assist- ance it received through state-aid entitlements that were based on erroneous data submitted by the district.

State targets for academic performance were routinely missed. In 1987, for example, only 25 percent of 1,600 Jersey City students who took the state's High School Proficiency Test passed all three sections. The year before, only 15 percent passed all three.

Facilities were in "deplorable'' condition; buildings were literally crumbling. One school remained open, even though its entire third floor was unsafe and had been condemned.

Some administrators often seemed more concerned about improving the reports than the results. For example, in several schools, poor attendance records were improved by changing the homeroom period from early in the day to midmorning, by which time more students had arrived. At other schools, students who could not maintain the required C average to play on athletic teams were sometimes classified as handicapped in order to exempt them from the requirement. But other administrators were also fed up with the apparent unwillingness of district officials to support their attempts at proper school management. Rather than depend on a central office that they perceived as unresponsive, principals often resorted to an informal bartering system in which they traded supplies and textbooks among themselves.

How could the state's secondlargest school district fall so far? Principals, interviewed just after the initiation of the takeover, blamed the city's long history of political corruption. "This is the way it has always been,'' said Henry Przystrup, principal of the Fred W. Martin Public School. "It's a poor, working-class town. Oneman control and the use of tokens and political hacks in key managerial positions is the way of life here.''

Franklin Williams, the district's superintendent at the time of the take- over, argued that the district's troubles were the direct result of its impoverished, working-class status. During the district's year-long attempt to block the move by the state, he argued that the local schools had to contend with social and economic problems that were beyond their control, and that an increase in state funding--not state control--would bring about the needed reform. He also pointed to improvements in school performance over the past three years.

State officials, however, attributed the marginal improvements to the sword of takeover that hung by a thread over the local board's head. The administrative law judge reviewing the case agreed. In a ruling last July, he concluded that the district was suffering from "severe, longstanding, deep-rooted deficiencies permeating virtually all aspects of the district's operations.'' He turned matters over to the state board of education.

The board's authority is rooted in legislation that New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean had battled with state legislators for two years to enact. After reaching a compromise with wary lawmakers, Kean signed a bill in January 1988 authorizing the state to seize control of school systems deemed "academically bankrupt'' and unable to provide a "thorough and efficient'' education.

Eight states--Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia-- now have laws permitting full take- overs of troubled districts. Kentucky passed the first law in 1984, but New Jersey's--the most far-reaching--has generated the most interest nationally as a model for "accountability.''

The state's decision to intervene had the effect of formally abolishing the district's nine-member school board, the position of superintendent, and other top administrative posts.

Cooperman selected Elena Scambio, former superintendent in Essex County and coordinating county superintend- ent for the state's northern region, to head the district. She and a 15-member advisory team appointed by state and city officials will direct the state's reorganization.

Among other things, Scambio has said that she plans to streamline the district's organizational structure; empower teachers and principals; create school councils made up of parents, staff, and community members; and build school-business partnerships.

Under the law, the state may raise local taxes, renegotiate contracts with teachers, and fire tenured administrators after a three-stage evaluation process. Given such sweeping authority, Scambio suggested, the state ought to be able to do for the schools what Jersey City officials couldn't do for themselves.

"Now is the time to fish, cut bait, or get out of the boat,'' Scambio said. "The city that lies within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty can become a fitting example of educational excellence.''

--Lisa Jennings, Education Week

Vol. 01, Issue 03, Pages 18-20

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