NEWARK, NJ — In a unanimous decision, the New Jersey Board of Education gave back complete control of Newark Public Schools to the state’s largest district on Wednesday, more than two decades after seizing it in a historical takeover. 

The move toward total local control first started in 2016, when the NJDOE returned control of personnel decisions to Newark and allowed the district to start submitting a monitoring and district self-evaluation system, or NJQSAC. Then in 2017, the state allowed the district to take-back school board governance, which marked a new era for the Newark Board of Education, which for 22 years was permitted to serve only in an advisory capacity.

One of the key reasons for the change back to local control was the NJQSAC, the NJDOE’s monitoring and district self-evaluation system for public school districts. It evaluates districts based on five key areas, or District Performance Reviews: governance, instruction, operations, personnel and finance, and program and instruction. Program and instruction, commonly referred to as P&I, was the last piece of the puzzle returning full self-efficacy to NPS.  

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The district received perfect NJQSAC scores under the guidance of Anzella King Nelms, the district’s highly skilled professional, and the leadership of Superintendent Roger Leon, both of whom state board members and NJDOE Commissioner Lamont Repollet praised. 

“We know that schools operate most effectively when they have the support and buy-in of stakeholders in the community,” Repollet said. “This milestone came about through the sheer determination and dedication of so many people at the local level, including parents, educators, school administrators and civic leaders.”

Wednesday's meeting was the commissioner's last before he moves on to assume a new role as president of Kean University. 

“I’m honored to be part of this historic moment and to have worked with the commissioner, my fellow state board members over many years to pursue what really is justice for the city of Newark by returning local control to the residents,” said state board member Arcelio Aponte. 

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-28) chimed in to offer congratulations to the many individuals who have had a hand in what she spelled out as Newarkers taking back what is rightfully theirs.

"It is ours, and now we carry the burden to say, 'Give it back to us. We know what we want. We know what we need. We know how to govern,'" she said. "Let’s show them the results, that a great city is not about brick and mortar, it’s about people who can create, develop and ensure."

In a decision framed by ongoing civil unrest around the world, the restoration of NPS’s agency over itself feels especially poignant for many who were present for its loss of power. State intervention, long decried as racist and undemocratic, has often hurt students and families, according to officials. 

Sen. Ron Rice (D-28), who was serving at the time of state intervention in Newark, said he has long been opposed to district takeovers, which declare a district “failing” and stigmatize its often Black and Latinx students.   

“I never thought we should have been taking the districts over, we should have been building capacity,” Rice said. “I want to thank all those students that no one talks about, who were part of the group that constantly pushed forward in many public statements and demonstrated that we would have the school district back in place.” 

Educators have also criticized the QSAC reporting mechanism as laborious and a poor measure of student achievement, citing that it only measures metrics like graduation rates and state test scores. While the NJDOE revised its accountability system in 2018 to include metrics of student growth rather than hard data, districts across the state still find the requirements put an undue burden on staff.

Nonetheless, Wednesday’s victory for Newark Public Schools was cause for celebration and congratulations, particularly for Leon and Nelms, who were the target of laurels as unanimous as the board’s vote. Member Ronald Butcher said it was one of his proudest and most memorable moments in his 30-year tenure. 

Leon, showcasing the improved attendance rates, increased enrollment and changing landscape occurring within the district, outlined his commitment to serving Newark’s children, all 55,000-plus. 

“While I have the responsibilities of your superintendent, I want you to know that my primary responsibility is to help your dreams come true. I am living my dream right here, and right now,” Leon said. “I was just a little boy from Hawkins Street in Newark, with a single mom who didn’t speak English, we were on welfare. My students, you know my story, so I need you to dream big, because I’m going to help make your dreams come true.”