State of New Jersey
Department of Education
100 River View Plaza
PO Box 500
Trenton, NJ 08625-0500

James E. McGreevey
Governor

William L. Librera
Commissioner
To: State Board of Education
From: William Librera, Ed.D
Commissioner
Re: State Takeover Report
Date:   June 19, 2002

Background

In 1988, the state of New Jersey approved, through the legislature and the State Board of Education, the authority for the Department of Education to take over school districts that were failing according to the established monitoring process. In 1989, the State of New Jersey became the first state in the country to takeover a school district when the Department of Education did so with the Jersey City School District. The State of New Jersey also took control of the Paterson School District in 1991, and the Newark School District in 1995. The takeover legislation intended to authorize an intervention that would be temporary in nature. The State of New Jersey is still in control of those three districts.

From 1981 through 1997, there were a series of Supreme Court decisions regarding the Abbott suit on behalf of minors filed relative to thirty school districts. This suit charged and later prevailed that the funding system in the State of New Jersey was unconstitutional, as it did not provide adequately for the children in the lowest socioeconomic urban centers in the State of New Jersey. Although this decision dramatically changed the funding formulas in the State of New Jersey including, but not limited to, the three takeover districts, the content of the decision has never been integrated into the state takeover legislation and/or regulations.

In January 2001, Commissioner David Hespe authorized a study of the state takeover districts with the expressed intent of examining ways in which the districts could return to local control. The Commissioner requested that four faculty members from Rutgers-Newark complete the study. In part, this request reflected the recent history since 1997 when there was a minimum of 5 plans to return the state takeover districts to local control beginning with Jersey City. By 2001, these plans had been abandoned. The faculty members included Paul Tractenberg who had been involved in both the Robinson and Abbott cases, including his work to create the Education Law Center. The four faculty members had a thorough knowledge of the circumstances leading to state takeover and the subsequent Abbott decisions. The ultimate objective of the report, completed in May 2002 after interim reports were provided a year earlier, was to "develop a detailed roadmap or a blueprint for state takeover and for reestablishing local control in an effective, measured and responsible manner." Consisting of more than two hundred pages, including a thirty-two page executive summary, the report contains a history of state takeover in New Jersey, comparative student achievement data, best practices in school and municipal takeovers in the country as well as observations, conclusions, and recommendations.

Conclusions

The following are almost exclusively direct language and quotations from the report. They do not represent a priority order but rather illustrate briefly the essence of the report.

  • New Jersey’s approach to state intervention in school districts seems ill-conceived and poorly executed.
  • The state has never performed a systematic external assessment of the progress or improvement in any of the state-operated districts.
  • State operation of school districts in New Jersey has lacked direction and coherence.
  • New Jersey’s three largest school districts have been under state operation for long periods of time with no clear understanding about what the state’s focus should be, or how, and when, they should be returned to local control.
  • The condition of local capacity should be the cornerstone of the state’s intervention and the deciding factor in whether or not state intervention is necessary. Local capacity to operate a school district should be determined by examining numerous factors; reliance solely on pupil achievement is too narrow.
  • A clear and specific system of standards and benchmarks by which districts will be assessed needs to be established. In the case of districts determined to require state assistance, ensure that competent, objective, periodic assessments are carried out to measure progress and that results are promptly communicated to the district.
  • State operation in New Jersey has involved little effort by the state to prepare the boards of education for the task of resuming governance authority and little effort to work with local officials to make changes that are likely to result in long-term educational improvement.
  • During the period of state operation, the board of education should include four appointed members in addition to nine elected members.
  • In each of the districts, gains have been made, both in academics and operations, but the progress has been slow.
  • All three districts have demonstrated improvement over the last three years, in some cases, especially in Newark; they are still below the levels of achievement in other Abbott districts.
  • States with desirable patterns of success in state takeover have been California, West Virginia, Connecticut, and Kentucky.

Action

Based on the report as well as my direct observations including discussions with many people knowledgeable about state takeover, I believe a corrective course of action must begin immediately. It is obvious that the present state takeover law does not fulfill the intent as established in 1987.

  1. The present legislation governing the return to local control of state takeover districts through full certification has not worked. It must be replaced with legislation that reflects the best practices identified in the report and all of those point to substantial progress toward certification as the criterion for return to local control. All Department of Education directed efforts to state takeover districts shall immediately make the building of local capacity to govern well the primary objective.
  2. A working group of the Department of Education will begin immediately to identify a new approach to the return to local control based on the models identified in the report as best practices. Gordon MacInnes, Assistant Commissioner for Abbott Implementation, will create this group and it shall be constituted with those people who are knowledgeable and experienced regarding urban schools, particularly Abbott schools. This working group shall also share their preliminary work with the Commissioner’s designees of the Department of Education as well as the Abbott Implementation Council. The working group is invited to meet with the authors of the report and, where possible, with others familiar with best practices identified in the report. The final report is due to the Commissioner on October 1, 2002 or sooner. The Commissioner of Education will then prepare recommendations for the legislature and the State Board of Education.
  3. The Technical Assistance Program of the Department of Education will be reestablished and utilized in the state takeover districts as soon as September 2002. The focus shall be on collaborative assistance designed to improve local capacity for independent and effective practice. One area for such assistance will be in the area of building community involvement and capacity as is evident in best practices both for school and municipal takeovers as cited in the report.
  4. The changes to be recommended by the Commissioner to the legislature and the State Board of Education shall also provide the overall approach, oversight, assessment, and evaluative model for all of the Abbott Schools. This model may also contain criteria to be considered for other school districts that may require some form of state intervention.
  5. Four non-voting liaisons to each state takeover board shall be appointed no later than September 1, 2002 by the Commissioner of Education to assist the local boards in the state takeover districts. These liaisons shall be included in all board matters/meetings and they shall represent higher education in the district, community leaders, and board members with experience from either education or boards of trustees, and private/public sector representatives from the community. At least three of the four liaisons shall be residents of the community. It should be noted that in Paterson a representative from William Paterson University has served in just such a capacity with distinction. There are other references to such a practice in the state takeover report.
  6. As all of the boards in the state takeover districts have only advisory roles in personnel, the advisory role shall be extended effective August 1, 2002 to personnel appointments in all support staff positions, consultants, and attorneys other than in-house counsel. (The attorneys under consideration shall come from the approved list provided by the Office of the Attorney General). The advisory role of the board in these areas shall be a process that involves the board discussing and considering the recommendations of the superintendent. Disputes between the State District Superintendent and the boards of education shall be decided by the Commissioner, or his designee instead of the veto power presently vested in the State District Superintendent. This process shall be extended to professional staff appointments on April 1, 2003, as that is the time when appointments for the 2003-04 school year commences.
  7. If the State District Superintendent is to be notified of contract renewal between June 2002 and November, 2002, as is the case in Newark and Paterson, the Commissioner of Education shall conduct a national search and he will present to the state takeover board and the non-voting liaisons a slate of no more than five candidates for consideration and advice as to appointment. Included in that slate will be the present state district superintendents in those districts as both have done, from information available to me, at least a good job. Involving the state operated board in a critical decision is the motivation for this approach. It must be understood that the Commissioner of Education has all intentions to support the recommendation of the local board.
  8. Since it is possible that at least one of the three State Takeover Districts (Jersey City) may be either immediately, or within six months of the new legislation, be eligible for the return to local control, the technical assistance, continued liaisons, and the involvement of the Department of Education shall continue, after the return to local control, in an appropriate manner that is both collaborative and supervisory.

Timeline

    June 2002

    • Between June 6-17, 2002, separate, but confidential meetings with state district superintendents, chairs of local boards of education, and the leadership of the teacher’s association will be held to discuss the content of this report and the plan of action.
    • June 19, 2002 -Public release of this plan of action as well as the executive summary of the report by Tractenberg et. al. shall occur at the State Board Meeting.
    • By June 26, 2002, complete copies of the Tractenberg report will be available on-line.

    July-August, 2002

    • Committee work on state takeover legislation begins.
    • Hold one meeting with each board of education in state operated districts to explain the plan without community questioning. This will be done in September 2002.
    • Interview prospective board liaison candidates.

    September, 2002

    • Hold one additional meeting with each state operated board of education with opportunity for the community to question and to comment.
    • September 8, and 15-advertise nationally for the search for the state-operated school districts in Newark, and Paterson.
    • Non-voting liaisons established in each of state-operated school boards.

    October, 2002

    • October 1 -Final report from the Working Group due to Commissioner.

    November, 2002

    • November 8, 2002-Applications for State District Superintendents close.
    • November 13-29,2002-Interviews for State District Superintendents.
    • November 18, 2002-Target date for Commissioner’s recommendations on state takeover legislation presented to legislature and State Board of Education.

    December, 2002

    • December 2, 2002-Slate of candidates presented by Commissioner to state takeover boards in Newark and Paterson.
    • December 20, 2002-Recommendation from state takeover boards to Commissioner.

    January, 2003

    • January 6, 2003-Announcement of appointments of State District Superintendents in Newark and Paterson.