JERSEY CITY, N.J. — A year and a half ago, this city's public school students were performing so poorly on statewide basic proficiency tests that the state of New Jersey decided to take an unprecedented step:
In the largest state takeover of a school district in the nation, the state fired the district superintendent, dismissed the local school board and replaced them with state-appointed officials who were given five years to bring the district up to academic par.
New Jersey's takeover experiment is being closely watched by educators across the country as states seek ways to hold local districts more accountable for state aid they receive--now almost 50% of school revenues nationwide.
Melody Bush, information specialist with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, says at least a dozen states have laws authorizing state officials to intervene in school districts that are deemed to be failing academically or financially.
But only in New Jersey has the state gone in and actually tried to run an entire school district itself.
The results of the experiment in Jersey City, the state's second-largest school district, are so far mixed. Although the state has gone a long way toward eliminating the political patronage, fiscal mismanagement and corruption that plagued the schools, it has failed to elevate the all-important achievement levels of the district's 28,000 students, almost 90% of them black, Latino or Asian-American.
Nevertheless, the state is again planning to seize control of a district it considers an academic failure. Education officials have set the wheels in motion to take over the Paterson schools, the state's third-largest district and, like Jersey City, heavily populated with minority students.
In Jersey City, state-appointed officials stepped into an administrative morass. "There was absolutely no written procedure for hiring, no written procedure for fiscal operations, for purchasing, for paying of bills," said Elena J. Scambio, the new superintendent who had formerly been the state overseer for schools in Essex County, which includes Newark, the state's largest school district.
An internal audit after takeover revealed, for example, that unauthorized medical benefits were being paid to more than 250 former employees, including three who were dead, at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $3 million over a five-year period.
Meanwhile, complaints from teachers and principals began mounting over the allegedly heavy-handed way in which Scambio and her handpicked lieutenants operated.
Mayor Gerald McCann, who had endorsed a state takeover in his campaign to unseat former Mayor Anthony Cucci, now calls the state's move a "total disaster."
State officials say that despite the upheaval and change in the district the groundwork is being laid for significant gains further down the road.
A crucial moment for Scambio will come when results of this year's statewide proficiency tests are announced. Last year's scores dipped slightly--less than a percentage point overall.
State officials say they have learned lessons in Jersey City that will make a Paterson takeover work more smoothly, if a state seizure is approved.
"From Jersey City, we have learned that we need to involve all segments in the community in the takeover--and not just on a nominal basis," said Laura Mays of the New Jersey Department of Education. "Everyone's a stake holder. The bottom line is the best possible education for the children."
The state already has the backing of the Paterson teachers' union and Mayor William J. Pascrell, who also is a state legislator. "We don't expect an adversarial situation as the case was in Jersey City," Pascrell said.
But, in an ominous development, the Paterson Board of Education and the district superintendent, Frank Napier Jr., have vowed to fight the move. "We're not going away," said Napier, who has headed the schools for the past 15 years.