PATERSON, NJ – New Jersey’s acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf took a brief tour of Paterson’s School No. 3 on Wednesday morning.
This is a school where fourth grade students sit on the floor in a laboratory because the ceiling in their regular classroom has asbestos problems. This is a school where many of the 545 students eat lunch in their classrooms because the cafeteria is too small. This is a school with no auditorium and just one bathroom for boys and another one for girls.
“I can verify that a picture is worth a 1,000 words,” said Cerf, after leaving the 112-year-old school.
For the first time under the Christie administration, New Jersey’s top education official came to Paterson on Wednesday for a tour that lasted a little less than two hours. City and state education officials - who often have been at odds in the past year - hailed the much-anticipated visit as an opportunity to find common ground in their efforts to improve the sub-par education being provided to the city’s public school students.
“I’m taking him at face value that he wants to do what he says he wants to do,’’ said Mayor Jeffrey Jones. “He was informed of the inconsistencies of the state and he agreed.’’
Indeed, Cerf acknowledged that “the state has not effectively discharged its duty in Paterson” schools, and said that was something he would like to change.
Cerf emphasized that the quality of school buildings was not the most important factor in providing a quality education, but he also said that “poor facilities can compromise learning.”
“Let’s be honest: the success of the district is measured by the rate at which children learn,’’ Cerf said. “And right now, the district is not performing at a level that anyone is satisfied with.”
Cerf challenged city education officials to come up with specific proposals for improving Paterson’s schools and he promised his support to get that done.
Cerf closed by saying, “Paterson then needs to tell me what I need to do for us to accomplish that (those goals).”
“I think that Cerf is going to be engaged with Patersonians on their schools and that’s a good thing,’’ said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund.
Cerf’s visit, prompted by an invitation from Assemblywoman Nellie Pou during a budget hearing, came on a day when the state Supreme Court ruled the Christie administration need to provide an extra $500 million in funding for Paterson and other poor school districts in the upcoming budget.
The issue of funding has been at core of Paterson education advocates’ criticisms of the Christie administration.
Paterson school officials and education advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach to Cerf’s visit.
“Anytime the state education commissioner comes to Paterson, it’s a good thing,’’ said Paterson Schools Commissioner Christopher Irving. “The question is: Will it result in us getting what we need?’’
“I think it will help, it’s just a matter of how much,” Irving added.
Veteran school board member Jonathan Hodges said it was important for Cerf “to see for himself our needs.’’
“I’m going to take him at his word until he proves otherwise,’’ Hodges said of Cerf’s commitment to help city schools.
Several times, local officials urged Cerf to renew the contract of state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans. But the acting commissioner would not make that commitment.