I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

State Control Sucks

Here in New Jersey, four large urban school districts -- Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Camden -- are under the control of the state. The elected school boards have little to no power over operations and personnel. In addition, several districts have state-appointed fiscal monitors, who exercise power over many, if not most, decisions.

So, how's this working out for the schools in these districts? [all emphases mine]

Trenton (fiscal monitor, 4 years):
A decrease in enrollment at Trenton elementary schools led the district to reassign 10 teachers, taking them away from classes they had already started in and putting them into other roles.  
“We should have been informed about this change,” said Pesha Garner whose son was in the second-grade classroom of a teacher who was reassigned. 
Garner, who spoke during Monday night’s school board meeting, said her son no longer wants to go to school now that he is in a much larger classroom with more students. Garner said previously, the teacher paid special attention to him, making sure he was keeping up and learning how to read.  
Despite Garner’s complaints, the board voted unanimously in favor of reassigning all 10 teachers who were given new positions because of the decrease in enrollment.  
Superintendent Francisco Duran said he did not know why the enrollment had decreased more than what the district had anticipated when planning the number of staff for each school, but last week the district said that a larger than anticipated number of students had left the district schools in favor of charter schools. The district has no schools that are overenrolled, Duran said. 
The increase in charter school enrollment has had a role in a budget deficit for the district, causing the administration to freeze all purchases that are not funded by grants.
Paterson (state control, 23 years):
During the past 40 months, Paterson education officials have not filed any requests for state funding through a program designed to provide money to fix impending health and safety problems in urban schools. 
The lack of applications under the state’s “emergent repairs” program has frustrated local education advocates, especially because state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans has said that the Paterson district ranks high in New Jersey in terms of facilities’ needs. 
“So our kids got to sit in run down schools?” said Linda Reid, president of the city’s Parents Education Organizing Council. 
“We’re always blaming the state, the state, the state,” said city school board member Flavio Rivera. “But the state has resources and we’re not trying to take advantage of that. Who’s been minding the store?” 
Rivera initially made comments about the district’s lack of emergent repairs at a board meeting in October. To verify what Rivera was saying, Paterson Press filed a public records request for all emergent repair applications that the district filed with the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, the agency that runs the program, since July 2011. The district responded that no applications existed. 
“That is going to be corrected,” said school board president Chris Irving.
No, it's not -- turns out all the money is gone:
It’s not clear whether the state would have provided any funding for Paterson projects if the district documented the need for any emergent repairs during the past three years. Officials in Trenton say the $100 million was already allocated for scores of projects around the state and nothing else was available. But Rivera said he believes Paterson may have had a chance at getting something if it made a strong enough case for the repairs.
Jersey City (state control, 26 years):
Jersey City public-school administrators and teachers, already at odds over stalled contract negotiations, are engaging in another battle that may disrupt upcoming parent-teacher conferences. 
The disagreement, which finds both sides saying they are being attacked by the other, stems from the district's plan for 30 minutes of extra parent-teacher conference time. 
The district wants the conferences, also called "report card night," to start at 6 p.m., and the union says they should start at 6:30 p.m. 
Even faced with the district's threat of disciplinary action if teachers don't show up tonight at 6 p.m., the union is not backing down and has ordered its members not to report to the conferences until 6:30 p.m. 
JCEA President Ron Greco said any changes to teachers' schedules need to be negotiated. 
"The superintendent refuses to engage in any dialogue with the JCEA," Greco told The Jersey Journal. "I met with her many times in an attempt to resolve this, and she has stated, 'I am not discussing it' or 'I am not negotiating it.'" 
District spokeswoman Maryann Dickar denied that claim, saying Schools Superintendent Marcia V. Lyles is "open to continuing dialogue."
Sounds like an awesome work environment; I'll bet the resumes are just piling up...

If you read this blog or Bob Braun's, you'll know there's been plenty of mismanagement in Newark (state control, 20 years). But just when you think things can't get more screwed up...
A labor group representing some of the Newark school district’s lowest earning workers rallied this afternoon to protest wages they say have failed to increase over the last five years. 
Members of local Service Employees International Union chapters, including cafeteria workers, security guards and custodians claim they have been deprived of raises while top administrators receive huge salaries and even sizable bonuses. 
Held outside the district’s central office on Cedar Street, union officials and others contended that the employees, many of them women and minorities, are struggling to stay above the poverty level.  
“We’ve been very patient over the last five years in terms of the little people who work with the Board of Education,” said Assemblyman Tom Giblin, D-Montclair. “All they’re looking for is to kind of keep up with inflation.”  
In a statement, Newark Public Schools Chief Talent Officer Vanessa Rodriguez said the district was in the midst of negotiations with the union, and is “optimistic that we can come to an agreeable terms that will be beneficial to both parties.”
For the record, Rodriguez was making $162,500 a year with another $25K in "post-employment benefits." But State Superintendent Cami Anderson upped her pay by another $11K, along with many top executives in NPS. Plus -- free eats!

 Camden (fiscal monitor for 8 years, then state takeover in 2013):

Just one out of every seven students in the Camden school district have shown in standardized tests to be proficient in math and English, according to city and education officials. 
Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard addressed the latest test scores in Camden during a press conference at Octavius V. Catto Community School on Monday, stating, "We can and must do better." Rouhanifard said the district will in the coming weeks begin formal reviews of all of the city's schools — including district, charter and renaissance — ahead of taking whatever action officials see necessary. 
"We will take action," he said. "They will not be easy decisions to make, but incremental progress is not enough." 
Addressing the gulf between the scores of district students and their peers attending charter schools, Rouhanifard said he wouldn't "draw any conclusions" regarding the worth of one learning environment over the other. 
However, he acknowledged a point made by many in the past, that charter schools may not "reflect the same diversity" as the rest of the district. 
"The number of students who are English language learners, and children with disabilities, at charter schools may be lower than the rest of the district," said Rouhanifard. "We just want to make sure charter schools are serving all students."
"May be"?

Charter school expansion was always part of the "secret" plan for Camden's schools. But the State Superintendent is only now coming to the realization that the charters "may be" serving a different set of students than the district schools. Perhaps he should have thought of this earlier...

Look, there is an appropriate set of circumstances that can lead to state control or fiscal monitoring. It was certainly warranted in Lakewood, and it's warranted now in Belleville (thank the lord for our state's excellent teacher tenure protections, which allowed the waste there to be exposed!).

But long-term state control of New Jersey school districts is a failed policy. The state ought to immediately form plans with set deadlines to return control of these districts to their citizens.

Local control: it should be for everyone.

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