The controversial plan by the Christie administration to close, transfer to charters, or otherwise “repurpose” nearly half of the city’s public schools is illegal and must stop, according to the Education Law Center (ELC). The scheme, dubbed “One Newark,” has sparked widespread demonstrations and open hostility among city residents directed against state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson.
Elizabeth Athos, the senior attorney for the public interest law firm, warned Anderson in a letter dated Jan. 28 that the state administration cannot move forward with the plan because it has failed to abide by state regulations governing the closing of schools. It has not provided updated plans required by administrative rules that have the force of law and can be enforced in court.
The letter is expected to enhance the growing opposition to the Anderson regime running New Jersey’s largest district. On Jan. 17, she suspended five principals who spoke out against the plan but then reinstated them in the face of community outrage; the principals have since sued her in federal court. She banned a parent leader from entering the school attended by his two children. Anderson also stormed out of a school board meeting last week in the face of anger and criticism from city residents.
Athos pointed out the ELC, last October, had warned Anderson that the state administration of the Newark schools had failed to submit “Long Range Facilities Plan” (LRFP) required by state regulations. Without that plan, Athos wrote, the Christie administration cannot close schools.
“Since that time, NPS”—the Newark Public Schools—“has issued its ‘One Newark & Long-term Ward Plans” even though the district has not taken any steps to secure DOE”—(state Department of Education)—“approval of a revised LRFP.
“A revised LRFP, updated to reflect current conditions, is essential to support any district determination to replace, renovate, consolidate, or close NPS public schools and preschools.”
Athos noted that Anderson’s plan would require the closing of Madison Avenue School, Hawthorne Avenue School, Bragaw Avenue School, Alexander Street School, and Newton Street School, along with one or more early childhood centers.
“While building utilization and conditions might necessitate reconfiguration of NPS schools and preschools, the district’s authority to close schools is circumscribed by existing DOE regulation.”
The regulations, she says, require that any “proposed closing is consistent with the school district’s approved LRFP” because “sufficient school-building capacity exists to house students for the five years following the closing.”
The district also must “provide assurance that the use of temporary facilities in the remaining schools will not result or increase as a result of the school closing.”
The ELC lawyer also says the regulations require “the re-assignment of students to other schools in the school district does not produce, sustain, or contribute to unlawful segregation, separation, or isolation of student populations on the basis of race or national origin.”
This last objection was given powerful backing by a recent study by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker and his graduate student Mark Weber—better known as the popular education blogger “Jersey Jazzman”—who warned that the “One Newark” plan would be harmful to the city’s neediest and poorest students.
Finally, the district must receive a recommendation of the executive county superintendent for the school closing.
Athos added, “Although not expressly required, we would also strongly recommend obtaining the support of the NPS School Board for any school closing, given the significant short and long-term impact such action will have on the education of current and future K-12 students and preschoolers.”
The ELC attorney noted the last long-term plan was prepared in 2005 and approved by the state in 2007.
“It is seriously outdated and is well beyond the five-year period of effectiveness under state law. Thus, any decision about closing NPS schools and preschools, in addition to determinations of facilities needs and priority projects, cannot proceed in advance of revising the LRFP to reflect changed circumstances and current conditions.”
The state regulations, the ELC attorney wrote, “are critical to making sound decisions on the district’s facility needs, ongoing building use and school reconfiguration.”
She repeated the ELC demand from last fall that “you take prompt steps to complete and submit the revised” long-term plan.
“In the interim, we ask that you refrain from proceeding with any school or preschool closing, or other building reconfiguration” until she obtains state approval for the long term plan.
Matthew Frankel, Anderson’s chief spokesman, was emailed a copy of the letter and asked if the superintendent had a comment. He has so far declined to comment on the ELC’s contentions.
The law center has a history of going to court to protect the interests of children in urban schools and was a leader in defending the school aid formula that the Christie administration continues to ignore. While the Athos letter does not mention possible court action, the center could seek a court order stopping the “One Newark” plan based on violation of state regulations.
Activists opposed to the Anderson plan are expected to bring up her failure to abide by state regulations at this week’s state Board of Education meeting. The board, however, has acted as little more than a rubber-stamp for the plans of the Christie administration and its commissioner, Christopher Cerf.
The ELC analysis, however, could add momentum to legislative efforts to stop school closings throughout New Jersey, especially in urban districts. Proponents of the bill, introduced by state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) and cleared by the senate’s education planet, say they believe it could empower the Newark school board—given only an advisory panel by the state takeover law—to block the school closing in Newark and other cities.