PATERSON, NJ - For the first time under the Christie administration, New Jersey's top education official will come to Paterson to see the city's state-controlled public schools on May 24.
The impending visit by by acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, which was arranged through Assemblywoman Nellie Pou, comes as a welcome opportunity for city education advocates who often accuse state officials of running Paterson schools from afar without experiencing the consequences of their decisions.
 
"It's definitely important that we have Commissioner Cerf here to see first-hand how the students are struggling because of the budget cuts and all the things that have been taken away from them,'' said Fernando Martinez, coordinator of the Paterson Education Organizing Committee, an advocacy group.
 

"It's long overdue, but it's appreciated,'' said Paterson Schools Commissioner Christopher Irving.
 
During the first 16 months of Chris Christie's governorship, Trenton instituted a massive budget cut that produced layoffs of more than 400 Paterson teachers and other staff members last year, imposed a spending and hiring freeze on the district that stalled textbook purchases and left special education students without mandated services and delayed the construction of four city new schools for almost a year before it finally gave the go-ahead to two of the projects while leaving the other two in limbo.
 
State officials have described the budget cuts as part of a painful solution to a statewide fiscal crisis, the spending freeze as a measure needed to fix problems with the district's finances and the construction delay as a way to bring accountability to the scandal-plagued state agency that oversees the construction of new education facilities in New Jersey's cities.
 
Education advocates say they hope Cerf's visit will produce improved cooperation between the state and Paterson. Details of the commissioner's itinerary have not yet been released. Cerf's spokesman, Alan Guenther, said Pou is handling those arrangements. Martinez said Pou's staff told him that school district officials were planning the visit.
 
Exactly what Cerf does, where he goes and whom he meets with during the trip will go a long way toward determining whether the visit becomes one extended public relations photo opportunity or a substantive examination of the needs of Paterson schools.
 
For example, a trip composed of visits to the newest facilities, like International High School and the New Roberto Clemente School, would belie the fact that more than half the city's children attend classes in buildings that are more than 100 years old.
 
Will Cerf check out the spanking new, state-of the-art kitchen at Eastside High's culinary academy or will he look in on a math class at one of the elementary schools where students' scores in standardized tests are far below proficiency levels?
 
"We want him to see our needs,'' said Irving. "We also want him to see our accomplishments.''
 
Martinez said it's important that Cerf interact with people other district administrators while he's in Paterson.
 
"We want to see parents be part of the delegation that welcomes Commissioner Cerf,'' Martinez said.
 
Irving said school board members - many of whom have been highly critical of the state's treatment of Paterson schools - also should "have the commissioner's ear" during the visit.
 
The commissioner's trip comes at a crucial time for state-appointed School Superintendent Donnie Evans, who has been in the job for two years. Under the superintendent's three-year contract, the state must notify Evans by September 1 whether he will be re-appointed beyond that term.
 
Local education advocates, who have supported keeping Evans to bring continuity to a district that has had revolving door in the superintendent's office, say they fear Christie will remove him because he was appointed by the governor's predecessor, Jon Corzine.