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After a year back in control, Newark’s school board is about to get its first report card

Newark's state-appointed monitor, Anzella King-Nelms, has helped guide the school district during its two-year exit from state control.
Newark's state-appointed monitor, Anzella King-Nelms, has helped guide the school district during its two-year exit from state control.
Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

Nearly one year after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the Newark school system, the district is nearing a major milestone — report card day.

By the end of January, independent evaluators at Rutgers University are expected to release a report assessing the district’s progress since the school board regained conditional authority over the schools last year. The evaluators will rate the board’s adherence to ethics rules and the district’s budgeting practices, among other considerations.

The report is one of many requirements laid out in a state plan guiding the district’s return to full local control — a two-year process that began last February. If the district earns failing grades on more than a third of the report’s measures, then the state could beef up its oversight, demand corrective action, or extend the board’s transition period, which is set to end in January 2020.

While the elected board is still awaiting its progress report, the members have reason to expect high marks.

The report is based largely on evidence provided by a state-appointed monitor who has been documenting every board meeting, training, and action over the past year. At a board meeting last week, the monitor called the board “professional” and “knowledgeable,” and said she expects the evaluators to issue a “glowing report.”

“Newark is writing the model for what transition back to local control looks like and sounds like,” said the monitor, Anzella King Nelms, a former Newark principal and deputy superintendent.

If Newark is now modeling the return to local control, it was once seen by some as a case study in district dysfunction.

In July 1995, state officials marched into Newark’s board headquarters, ousted its top officials, and took over day-to-day management of New Jersey’s largest school system. (Nelms was in the district offices that day and witnessed the proceedings.)

The state takeover — which mirrored ones in Jersey City, Paterson, and, later, Camden — followed years of reports detailing failing test scores and crumbling school buildings in Newark. Meanwhile, the district’s nine board members were busy attending conferences in Hawaii, expensing cars and lavish meals to the district, and putting family members on the district payroll, according to the state.

Under state control, the board held an advisory role with little actual authority. Over time, the state slowly returned some of the board’s powers, but it was not until last February — after the state had concluded that student achievement and board functions met its standards — that the board regained provisional control over all aspects of the district. In May, for the first time in over two decades, the district’s superintendent was chosen by the board rather than the state.

Now, the board must follow the strict guidelines in the 73-page transition plan in order to keep control.

Those guidelines have been condensed into an “accountability scorecard,” which is the basis of the progress report. The scorecard tracks whether board members have followed conflict-of-interest laws, attended ethics trainings, and conducted a proper superintendent search. It also notes whether the district prepares a balanced budget and evaluates teachers according to state rules.

Nelms, who attends most board meetings and trainings, has documented each of those actions. She keeps a blown-up copy of the scorecard above her desk in district headquarters, and maintains fastidious records in a thick, color-coded binder that she is rarely seen without. Her efforts have impressed the evaluators, who are based at Rutgers’ Bloustein Local Government Research Center, she said.

“I have evaluated state governments, city governments, school districts, and I have never had documentation submitted in this manner, where it is so complete,” Nelms said the evaluators told her.

She also assured the board that they are free of ethics violations — or, at least, that none have been reported.

“When I contacted the state department, I said, ‘Bring to me one ethics case that has surfaced,’” she said at the board meeting. “And they said to me, ‘Ms. Nelms, Newark is clean. They have no ethics cases.’”

A state education department spokesman said he expects the progress report to be ready by the end of the month. After the district reviews it, the report will be made public.

The evaluators will continue to produce periodic reports during the year. A final report is expected next January, which will inform the state’s decision whether to complete the handover of authority back to Newark’s school board.

While Nelms’ update focused on the board’s compliance with state rules, this month’s report card and future evaluations will also consider students’ academic progress — the district’s core responsibility, which mainly falls on the superintendent. On last year’s state PARCC exams, Newark students made gains in English while their growth in math stalled. They will take a new round of tests this spring, which will measure their progress under the district’s new superintendent, Roger León.

For now, board members appear encouraged by Nelms’ enthusiastic review of their performance. After her report, board vice chair Dawn Haynes summed up their response with one word: “Awesome.”

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