PATERSON, NJ - It took 20 years for Paterson Public Schools to make enough improvement for the state to be willing to give up total control of the district. It's going to take at least a a little while longer before local officials regain any sort of control over the school system.
First, there's a series of reviews that have to take place to confirm the evaluation that deemed Paterson ready to resume local control of its schools. Then, there's a state-mandated transition process. And then, finally, there needs to be a public referendum on what type of Board of Education Paterson residents want - one elected by voters or one appointed by the mayor.
 
"It should happen by April,'' said Board of Education President Theodore. "That's what I'm pushing for.''
 

But April seems to be a highly optimistic - if not impossible - target considering the steps that lie ahead, according to state law. The first step is Paterson Public Schools' own evaluation of the scores that determined the district was ready to return to local control in three areas - operations, personnel and governance. (In two other areas, fiscal management and instruction, Paterson still failed to meet state standards and will not shed Trenton's control.)
 
The Paterson Board of Education plans to vote on January 5 to confirm its scores, Best said. After that, the Passaic County Superintendent of Schools office has 60 days to review and confirm the scores, he said. Then, the decision gets passed to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education's office, which has 45 more days to review the scores, Best said at the December 15 Board of Education meeting.
 
Meanwhile, the state commissioner must approve a transition plan, according to the law. Once that happens, the local school board will begin regaining some power, but its votes would be subject to veto by the state commissioner, the law says. Finally, within a year of local control control being restored, the city would hold a public referendum to decide whether to have an elected or appointed school board.
 
Best acknowledged the process may drag beyond April. He said it was important for the local officials to regain control within the next 18 months, because that's when the contract for the current state-appointed superintendent, Donnie Evans, expires. If the school regains control, Best said, local officials would be able to pick their superintendent for the first time in two decades.
 
At the December 15 meeting, many board members spoke glowingly about the prospect of regaining local control. But board member Jonathan Hodges emphasized that the district still failed the evaluation in the area of instruction. "It's the reason we're here, and that, by the way, was the lowest score,'' Hodges said.
 
Irene Sterling, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit advocacy group, agreed with Hodges' assessment.
 
"All of this is about student achievement,'' Sterling said. Based on the district's low standardized test scores, Sterling said, there are two ways of looking at the situation, "that Paterson students are stupid, which they're not,'' or the district is not providing with the instruction they need to succeed.