After three decades of controlling the Paterson school district, the New Jersey Board of Education has agreed to return power to the locally elected school board.
Members of the state board unanimously passed a measure returning local control in a virtual meeting on Wednesday morning.
“Today’s action will restore the deserved academic decision making for the people Paterson. I’m very confident that the community will utilize all of its talents and resources and creative vision to cement the foundation of success,” said Kathy Goldenberg, president of the New Jersey Board of Education.
Local officials welcomed the move.
“Reaching this milestone was no child’s play,” said school board president Kenneth Simmons. He credited the long list of school board members for their work in regaining local control.
“This is definitely a proud moment for Paterson,” said mayor Andre Sayegh. “We still have work to do. We have to make sure every student is set up for success.”
Paterson was placed under state takeover on August 7, 1991. A state report described then-superintendent Frank Napier as incompetent. His “management was characterized by an inability to demonstrate an understanding of the role and function of a chief school administrator,” according to the report. Napier was criticized for being isolated from daily operations and lacking vision for the district. The school board at the time was described as inept and busy with petty squabbles rather than focused on providing a good education to its students.
Paterson began to regain pieces of local control in 2014. In 2018, the state board approved measures to return control to the local school board following a two-year transition process. A three-person state team conducted three evaluation reports over the past two years. All three reports showed the district had the capabilities to run its own affairs.
The three decades of state takeover has been widely viewed as a failure. State board member Ronald Butcher voted for the takeover almost 30 years ago. He appeared to regret the takeover.
“I hope,” said Butcher, “we never see a takeover of a school district like this again in the history of this state.”
“We’re sorry. We have failed you,” said state board member Andrew Mulvihill.
During the takeover, local school board members presumed it would last for a few years.
“It took a lot longer and a lot of gnashing of teeth,” said congressman Bill Pascrell, who served on the local school board and later as mayor.
The school board still faces many challenges.
The district remains one of the lowest performing in New Jersey. It saw graduation rates drop two years in a row. It will also have to start a search to find a replacement for Eileen Shafer. Shafer has been serving as superintendent since 2017.
Paterson has almost 30,000 students and 4,000 staff.
Paterson has a $600 million budget. It has had to cut staff, including teachers, every year to balance its budget. It currently faces a $50 million budget shortfall, officials revealed last month.
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