PATERSON, NJ -- The state education commissioner has decided to retain control of Paterson schools, saying in a letter on Wednesday that the district has not made enough progress to be turned back over to locally-elected officials.
The decision represents a bitter blow for city Board of Education members who believed they were on the verge of regaining some degree of local control back in December when a preliminary assessment found Paterson Public Schools achieved passing scores in three of the five categories that were under evaluation – personnel, operations and governance.
But in his September 21 letter, acting education commissioner Christopher Cerf presented Paterson school officials with a revised set of scores that left the district with passing numbers in just one category – governance.
“How did that happen?’’ asked Paterson Schools Commissioner Errol Kerr, referring to the new scores. “It makes absolutely no sense. I believe the state manipulated the numbers to justify their presence in the district. They’re just trying to make sure they control Paterson.’’
Paterson Schools Commissioner Jonathan Hodges said he hoped Cerf would be willing to come to Paterson to explain the district’s scores on the state’s evaluation report.
Cerf’s letter made no reference to the previous scores, which had given Patersonians a glimmer of hope. Most of Cerf’s letter focused on city students’ low test scores and graduation rates.
“The central purpose of a school district is to graduation its students from high school ready for college and careers,’’ Cerf wrote. He then pointed out that the city’s graduation rate of 50.4 percent was far below the 80-percent mark set by the state.
Cerf also mentioned that 25 of the district’s 39 schools are deemed in need of improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind law, that 62.3 percent of Paterson students are below proficiency levels in language arts and that 55 percent are below proficiency in math.
“At this time, I am not prepared to recommend that any partial withdrawal be initiated,’’ Cerf said of state control.
But school board members argued that those same “disgraceful” numbers provided proof that the state during its 20 years of control of Paterson schools has failed to improve the district and benefit students. Board members insisted that local officials were best positioned to make the necessary changes to reform the floundering district.
Under state control, the education department appoints the superintendent who has final say over all aspects of the school district’s operations. The Board of Education votes on contracts, personnel reports and budgets, but the superintendent has the power to override those votes. For the most part, the elected board members serve an advisory role.
Paterson and Newark are the two districts in New Jersey that the state controls. In July, Cerf opted to retain control over Newark schools even though the district achieved passing scores in four of the five categories. Newark is filing a legal challenge to the decision.
Paterson school board officials said they were not surprised when Cerf’s letter contained revised scores for their evaluation, considering what had happened in Newark.
New Jersey’s system for evaluating school districts and determining whether they ought to be under state control is called Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or QSAC. Student test scores and graduation rates come under one of the five areas of review – instruction and program.
School board members said they had expected the state to retain control over that area. But they had hoped to regain control over governance, personnel and fiscal issues – a change that would have given the board’s votes on things like the budget and hiring real authority. In December, a preliminary self-evaluation had given the district passing scores in those areas.
“With regard to personnel, in 2010, Paterson failed 2 indicators,’’ said New Jersey education department spokeswoman Allison Kobus. “They were that staff were not employed in recognizable titles and that staff were not adequately credentialed for the assignments they were given. In 2011, Paterson failed these indicators again, and also failed three more, for a total of five.”
“The additional indicators that Paterson failed were that it lacked a plan to recruit and retain teachers, the staff did not have enough hours of professional development and there were no novice/mentor bi-weekly meetings for new staff,’’ Kobus added.
Kerr and Hodges said they found it strange that Paterson board members received a low score in the personnel category considering all those decisions were made and overseen by the state-appointed superintendent, Donnie Evans.
“He doesn’t come to us with these items, he goes to them (the state),’’ Hodges said. “We vote on what he’s already gotten approval on from the state.’’
When asked why a category like personnel, over which locally elected officials have no say, would be a factor in returning the district to local control, Kobus responded, “It is required by statute.’’
Cerf’s letter said Paterson scored a 33 in instruction, 51 in fiscal management, 70 in operations, 53 in personnel and 88 in governance. Kerr said the score of 88 in the governance category contrasted with the failing scores in areas overseen by the state.
“It’s two different worlds,’’ Kerr said. “It says we are doing the job we are required to do and are doing it well. But what about the state’s responsibility?’’
Paterson Public School now must develop an improvement plan to correct the areas in which it failed, said Kobus. The district has until December 1, 2011, to submit an improvement plan to the state. Six months after the improvement plan has been submitted, the state education department will conduct another review of the district, officials said.
When asked for input on the QSAC decision, Paterson Public Schools spokeswoman Terry Corallo issued the following statement on behalf of the district and Evans:
“Since creating our five year strategic plan in 2009, which Dr. Evans began to implement last year, the district has been working diligently toward accelerating student achievement. The restructuring of all of the district high schools into smaller learning communities – and schools of “choice” – is one major example of this. Although much more work needs to be done, it’s important to note that Eastside High School, which was restructured last year, did achieve 6.5% growth in language arts this past year.
“Now for this school year, we have introduced a new reform strategy that we are calling the Paterson Innovation Zone. This is a substantial intervention that will initially begin with a smaller group of schools (17 in total – but please note that some of the schools such as Norman S. Weir are included to represent best practices – or model schools which other poorer performing schools can learn from). We have been working closely with the Acting Commissioner to ensure that the students of Paterson Public Schools receive a high quality education and that every child is prepared for a successful future – one that includes going to a four-year college.”