Board says major hurdles remain on Newark's path to local control

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on September 24, 2015

Dawn Haynes speaks during the first meeting of the Newark Educational Success Board Wednesday night at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark. Parents and other attendees said they wanted new curriculum and extra-curricular activities similar to suburban schools once control of the district had been returned to local officials.

NEWARK – After more than 20 years of state oversight, parents and other education advocates in Newark are clearly anxious to return control of the city's schools to local hands.

The board charged with blazing the trail home, however, said they still face a major hurdle along the way.

The Newark Educational Success Board – formed by Mayor Ras Baraka and Gov. Chris Christie in June – told more than 100 attendees at Abyssinian Baptist Church Wednesday that the timeline for the end of state control will likely begin once the district demonstrates it is ready to govern itself.

According to the board, that indication will largely rest on the state's Quality Single Accountability Continuum, a sometimes-controversial assessment given annually to all of the state's public school systems.

"There needs to be a full court press. That's the framework that (Education Commissioner David Hespe) has talked about," said board chairwoman Mary Bennett.

The QSAC assessment evaluates each district in five separate areas – instruction and programming, operations, fiscal management, personnel and governance – the last of which will be the most critical in fast-tracking the transfer of power back to Newark.

Over recent years, the city's scores have been mixed. It consistently meant the state's benchmark of 80 percent in fiscal management and operations, and the state has granted some autonomy to the city to oversee those areas.

In the other three, however, including the ever-important governance, it has largely failed to meet the required standards.

"The problem is, we don't have governance, and to use the superintendent's own words, that's the trigger," Bennett said.

QSAC scores have proven controversial in the past, with critics saying the state appears to apply them arbitrarily when deciding whether or not to assume or retain control over low-performing districts.

In 2011, Newark schools scored between 83 and 100 percent in all five areas, but the state declined to begin the process of restoring local control, saying it still had additional work to do to deliver a "high-quality education" to students. The scores dipped considerably the following year, and a court later ruled that control over the schools was at the discretion of the education commissioner, regardless of any measurements of progress.

Board members said they had met with representatives from the state Department of Education who had provided more specific instructions about how to raise their scores, which most recently showed regression in some areas.

However, the state typically takes a year or longer to deliver the scores, meaning any adjustments based on the new guidance would likely not bear fruit until sometime in 2017.

Despite the potentially lengthy transition, the 9-member board said they were nonetheless committed to working with current district employees and the School Advisory Board toward their common goal.

"I know there's nothing I can do about the past, but I think there's a lot we can do together about the future," said Superintendent of Schools Christopher Cerf, one of five members appointed by Christie.

"Our destination must be local control, authentic complete absolute and total local control."

During the latter half of the two-hour meeting, attendees were invited to share their hopes and suggestions about how a locally controlled district might look.

Speakers, including many parents, largely asked for more teachers and support staff, and for the addition or restoration of both academic and extra-curricular activities to help students achieve.

"First of all, education in Newark public schools should look our children do when they're 6, 7, 8 years old, and they're racing to get to school. There is joy, there is expectation, and there is vision," said Dr. Maime Bridgeforth.

Others, however, said they had concerns that during such a crucial period, the district's progress would be overseen by Cerf, a former state education commissioner who appointed Cami Anderson, the recently departed school chief that many have blamed for running up a large budget deficit and underfunding public schools in favor of charter schools.

"That brings a grave concern to me, about how Cerf is going to handle that," said Denise Cole.

"Our schools right now need to be fully staffed, with qualified, certified teachers. When we talk, we need to talk about relative sustainable methods. That is going to bring local control back to this community."

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