Jersey maps takeover of school district. Jersey City's chronic deficiencies test law on school standards

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

New Jersey has taken the first step toward a state takeover of the Jersey City public schools, citing chronic deficiencies in its education of schoolchildren. The 32,000-pupil school district on the shores of the Hudson River is beset with many of the ills other urban schools face - high dropout rates, low test scores, and poor attendence records.

But, says state Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman, ``Jersey City is just bleaker. It has fallen past fail-safe, beyond the ability to turn itself around. In Jersey City, we're saying `no more.'''

Dr. Cooperman filed a civil action yesterday requiring the district to show why a state takeover is unnecessary. The state has been monitoring the Jersey City schools since 1984. Although it is not the only district being monitored, Jersey City has been charged with failure to meet state standards in several areas, including curriculum, school facilities, and fiscal management.

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In addition, the state has requested emergency powers that would allow it to monitor and veto certain school board decisions before a takeover goes into effect.

Several states have similar legislation that permits state officials to take control of a school district after extensive evaluation and guidance fail to result in improvements. New Jersey, however, is the first state to actually begin implementation of such a takeover. The Jersey City Board of Education is expected to contest the action, a process that could take at least nine months.

Years of political patronage and plundering in Jersey City have left a weak system that most local politicians and even a number of educators agree could be better off under state control.

``I'll give them the keys'' for academic intervention, says Mayor Anthony Cucci, if the state can prove its case.

``The most powerful problem is the placing of people into key positions based on politics,'' says Mr. Hart. ``Every bad dream and every negative stereotype of politics is represented in the Jersey City Board of Education.''

In the short term ``a lot of political people will lose their jobs, and in the long term education will improve,'' Councilman Bill O'Dea says.

The consequences of this patronage have resulted so far in one federal conviction for tax evasion. The current report is being shared with appropriate law enforcement officials, says Richard M. Kaplan, director of the Office of Compliance at the state education department.

Jersey City schools superintendent Franklin L. Williams, who has run the district since 1985, has said he will fight the takeover in the courts. A spokesman for his office cites improvements made in the district in the past several years, including a dramatic improvement in test scores from 1986 to 1987. But despite the bright spots, Cooperman emphasizes that district's failure is endemic.

Being the first school district where the takeover bill is implemented ``is an infamy we would prefer not to have to have,'' says City Councilor Thomas Hart. But he sees it as a means of helping out the teachers and principals who have not been able to run the schools effectively.

Many Jersey City residents see the state action as inevitable and necessary. Edgar Lopez, a Jersey City computer technician who sent his 12-year-old son to public school for one year, says ``the [public school] teachers don't have enough control.'' His son is now at a Roman Catholic parochial school, and he plans to send his three-year-old daughter to Catholic school next year. If a state takeover improved the schools, he would consider returning his children to the public system.

On all sides, there is frustration that publicity surrounding the case has been overly negative. The picture of the school district has been technically accurate, says Terence Matthews, principal of Ferris High School, but it has not been a true ``big'' picture.

``I love my job,'' Mr. Matthews says. ``Do we have problems? Yes. Do we need to improve? Yes. Most of our kids are good, but some need help.''

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