State Board of Education Gets Update from State-Operated School Districts

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Representatives from each of the state-operated school districts, Newark, Camden, Paterson and Jersey City, presented before the State Board of Education January 8.  All spoke of the challenges and opportunities each district has had over the last year.   Each spoke of promising gains and mounting concerns – financially, facility-wise and even safety wise.

Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf began the day, noting that the concentration of the 200 lowest performing schools is in these four urban centers, saying “77 of the bottom 5 percent are in districts with us here today.”  In fact, the data each district leader provided evidenced this, in addition to the many challenges.   But all four won high praise from not just state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who appointed them, but from the state board members as well.

Different Places

While similarities exist, there are distinct differences.  Each district is as at a different point on the “take-over” spectrum, with Camden just entering and Jersey City and Paterson much farther along.  In fact, Jersey City has gained some powers back, its local board appointing their latest superintendent, Marcia Lyles. In comparison, local boards in Newark and Paterson are still pressing to regain even minimal powers, while the Camden schools have just come under state control, with no exit plan in sight. 

Presentation Specifics

State-appointed Newark schools Superintendent Cami Anderson began the day’s presentations, providing an hour and a half presentation that detailed out the steps the district has taken in her last three years.

Anderson used broad strokes to outline her gains in the two-plus years she’s been in Newark. She touted the teacher contract that links teacher performance with salary increases, new magnet schools, including the state’s first single-gender schools, the electronic high school enrollment process that matched 8th graders with their choice of magnet and comprehensive high schools, and the collaboration between charter and traditional schools.  The enrollment system will be expanded this year to include students entering kindergarten, high school and any middle school grade that isn’t included in their current school. The enrollment application will include traditional and many charter schools.

Newark & Community

The liveliest exchange came in the board’s questioning of Anderson over ongoing criticism she faces within the community from advocates and activists over what they call a lack of collaboration and public input.  Cerf quickly came her defense, with Anderson listing a series of meetings that she has held with parents and others in the community as she developed her plans for the district.  Interestingly, none of the same questions arose over any of the three other districts — including Paterson and Jersey City, where the initial takeovers faced intense opposition.

“I would never speak for the situation in other urban districts, but in my town, we have a fantastic working relationship with Dr. (Donnie) Evans,“ said Christopher Irving, president of the Paterson school board, referring to the state-appointed superintendent.  “It doesn’t mean we always agree,” he said. “But we are always working it through together.”

School Funding Concerns

Also enlightening was the fact that, for all the criticism coming from Administration over school funding, particularly in urban districts, the appointees all outlined the brutal financial straits the districts have faced and will face in the next couple of years.

Evans, the superintendent in Paterson, called it an “impending cliff.” Anderson spoke of the continuing drain in dollars being shifted to the state’s growing charter school sector.

“Intellectually it makes sense, but in practice, it makes it very difficult for the district,” Anderson said, adding it could cost her district an additional $35 million in each of the next three years.

Lyles added an overt plea for the Christie administration to not trim school funding in the next state budget. She said her district could face an $18 million shortfall over the next four years without additional help from the state.

Similarly, all four pointed out the dire school building conditions each district faces.  “We really are in a bad place,” Lyles said of the state of school facilities.

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