Jersey City search for superintendent of schools could delay return to local control

The search for a new school principal could stall a plan more than a decade in the making.

Jersey City Public Schools are on track to return to full local control for the first time in 33 years, but must find a new superintendent to complete their transition, Board of Education Chairman Gerald Lyons said.

Lyons told the Jersey Journal that the school board hopes the transition will finally be complete this year. But a new hurdle has arisen as the school board will have to select a permanent superintendent, “because we cannot regain local control until we have a replacement in place”.

“The District is working hand-in-hand with the State of New Jersey’s two highly trained professionals, Drs. [Stephen] cowan and [Alexis] Colander, to fulfill all the conditions to return to full local control,” Lyons said Tuesday. “The board takes this very seriously and met with health service providers and invited them to our board retreat in February to make sure we all knew exactly what was needed.

“I believe we are on track to return to full local control this year.”

The state has appointed Highly Qualified Professionals, HSPs, as liaisons to help guide the district in executing the transition plan.

The New Jersey Department of Education did not respond in time to multiple requests for comment on the transition.

Former superintendent Franklin Walker retired in December before his contract expired in June 2023. The BOE decided in January to place Norma Fernandez, Walker’s assistant superintendent, as acting superintendent while it searches for a replacement. .

Fernandez could remain acting superintendent until June 2023 as the board begins its search. She will hold the position for at least six months with 30 days notice of termination. The school board’s last search for a superintendent in 2019 took 10 months to select Walker, who was acting superintendent at the time.

The Jersey City School District was the first to be taken over by the state in 1989 when state officials said the district’s “total academic failure” deprived its students of a thorough and effective education.

The Newark and Paterson public school districts were also under state control, but have reverted to local control in recent years. Camden is the only district with full state intervention status.

After nearly two decades of state control, the district began returning to local control in 2008. The district and state then developed a transition plan in 2018 to help the JCPS remain under local control. It was to end after two years, but the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the extension of the changeover.

Cowan and Colander in 2021 said the district is moving toward local control, but needs to show better documentation. The HSP had presented the report from the Comprehensive Accountability Office which highlighted progress and issues the school district needed to address.

The report is authored by Rutgers University’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center, which serves as the independent global accountability office for Jersey City‘s public schools.

At a school board retreat Feb. 4, Lyons told the board that the HSP could submit its final report to the state in May and the school could be under full local control by the summer.

Cowan and Colander presented at the retreat an overview of the last report completed and how the district could improve its documentation to complete its transition.

“We have until the end of May to compile our evidence to make a compelling case … that Jersey City public schools are able to restore local control,” Cowan said. “It’s a lot of work. I don’t think it’s a heavyweight.

“It’s just a matter of particularly clerical organization, to make sure we have everything in the right queue when it comes to those metrics.”

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