After more than 25 years of state control, the city’s school district could regain local control this year, according to school board president Christopher Irving.
Irving said the state is committed to returning the two remaining areas – instruction and program; and governance – by this summer if the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) review currently occurring yields 80-percent or above in both areas. He briefed his colleagues at a board meeting earlier in the month on the conversations that have occurred with both the state and county education chiefs on returning local control.
“It’s not a guarantee. I have to make that very clear,” cautioned Irving on Tuesday morning. The district has conducted an internal QSAC review, a metric the state uses to evaluate public school districts, in which all five areas were above the 80-percent mark.
Paterson has regained control over three of the five areas. Over the past three years it has gained operations, personnel, and fiscal management. It has scored well on governance since 2010. The district’s score on instruction and program has hovered around 35-percent.
Irving said the district has requested and received a waiver from the state to measure instruction and program differently. David Saenz, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, provided a copy of the equivalency waiver issued last Thursday.
Irving said in this round the review will measure growth. “It’s a much more fair indication of how we’re doing as a district,” he said. When asked will that not lower the performance bar, he said, “It’s not lowering the standards.”
Without a waiver, the review would check the number of students that have met the average state exam score; now, it will be whether the district met the growth average of the state, said officials.
“I don’t think this is the right method to gain local control,” said Linda Reid, president of the Parent Education Organizing Council of Paterson (PEOC), about using a waiver to bypass the traditional measure.
“Growth is important, but I want to know our kids are ready for college and career when they graduate high school,” said Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, an advocacy group. Growth may not tell whether students are prepared for career and college, she said.
Terry Corallo, spokeswoman for the Paterson Public Schools, would not make Theodore “TJ” Best, the district’s resident QSAC expert, available for an interview on Tuesday morning citing the review that is currently underway.
Best has been behind the effort to return local control to the school board. Irving thanked him for his work at the last school board meeting. Best has in the past said the district was losing as much as 30 points for not having a full curriculum in place. The district now has a full curriculum in place which will provide an immediate boost to the instruction and program area score, said officials.
School board members uniformly favor securing local control, but some worry corrosive political influence will make further inroads on the Board of Education.
“I’m very concerned,” said Jonathan Hodges, the longest serving member on the school board, who said there are very few independent voices on the board which will open the way for questionable behavior. “People will throw money at the school board election in this gold rush period between now and until local control.”
Hodges said corruption has occurred under state control. The district’s former facilities director James Cummings received 43 months prison sentence in 2006 for taking bribes and securing $47,000 in cash and free construction work for his home from two contractors doing business with the school district.
“I have mixed feelings, but we as Patersonians know better what our children need rather than being mandated by the state,” said board member Lilisa Mimms. “We have to ensure there are controls and monitors in place to avoid any mishandling or misappropriation of funds.”
There’s a two-year transitional period for returning local control. In that two years the state has the power to quickly take back control without going through the usual process that requires legislative approval, said officials.
Once control has been returned the district has to select a superintendent. Irving said the district can search for a new chief of education or retain the existing superintendent. There’s also a referendum that has to occur to determine whether the school board should be entirely elected or a mix of appointments and elections, according to officials.
Education advocates also wish to see local control return to the district, but expressed similar worries as some board members on corrosive political influence on the board.
“I’m torn. I’d love to get it back, but I’m afraid of what’s going to happen when we get it back. Politics will creep out more than it has now. I don’t know if our children will served from the ethics of the adults,” said Reid.
“We live in a democratic society so there’s always going to be politics, but the issue is when political aspirations are put ahead of what is good for the kids,” said Grant. “I want to focus the community on what is good for the kids as the board returns to local control.”
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