State: Newark is on track to regain full control of its schools in 2020

Newark is poised to regain full control of its schools early next year, formally ending a decades-long state takeover, state officials said this week.

The state restored authority to Newark’s elected school board in 2018 under the condition that it meet the requirements of a two-year transition plan. A newly released progress report says the district has so far “fully implemented” those requirements, according to a presentation Wednesday before the state Board of Education. If the district continues on that course, it will exit state monitoring and complete its return to local control in February.

“They are moving exactly as a model school district should be moving,” N.J. Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said after the board meeting. He also cited the positive feedback from Newark’s “highly skilled professional,” a state monitor overseeing the transition.

“We are very comfortable and confident that if they continue to work with the highly skilled professional,” Repollet added, “they will get to that point where we will gladly hand over the keys for Newark Public Schools.”

The progress report is the second Newark has received and covers six months that ended on July 31, though the results were not released until this week. It tracks whether Newark is carrying out the activities in the transition plan, such as choosing and evaluating a new superintendent, ensuring that school board members attend training sessions, and submitting a balanced budget.

The district received perfect scores on all the measures, according to the report, which was produced by the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University. The center will issue a final report in January, which the state will consider when deciding whether to finalize Newark’s return to local control.

“We’re extremely excited and are waiting to see those reports about the incredible work that we’ve actually done,” Newark Superintendent Roger León said at a school board meeting last month.

Much of the information in the progress report was supplied by Anzella King-Nelms, a former Newark principal and deputy superintendent chosen by the state to serve as the highly skilled professional. In that role, she has alternated between advisor and monitor — helping Newark adhere to the transition plan while also informing the state of its progress.

King-Nelms also submitted a progress report, which points to several signs that Newark’s transition to local control is proceeding smoothly. For instance, no ethics complaints have been filed against the school board, mandatory teacher evaluations were conducted, and León released a strategic plan for the district, she wrote.

The state seized control of Newark’s schools in 1995, citing dismal test scores and corruption within the school board. The board was placed in an advisory role and lost the power to appoint the district’s superintendent. 

After a years-long effort by Newark activists and political leaders to regain local control of the schools, the state restored the board’s authority in February 2018 — but kept it under state monitoring until 2020.

In May 2018, the newly empowered board named León as superintendent, making him Newark’s first locally chosen superintendent in nearly 23 years. At this week’s state board meeting, board member Arcelio Aponte offered praise for León.

“I think he’s an amazing leader,” Aponte said. “I certainly wish him well and continued progress for the district.”

Two other districts — Jersey City and Paterson — are also in the final stages of exiting from state control.

Reporting contributed by John Mooney of NJ Spotlight.