In 2013, a time when the state-operated Newark public schools suffered from one of the highest truancy rates in the state–if not the nation–its state-appointed superintendent fired all of its attendance officers. Now, three years later, with the district experiencing an even worse absenteeism problem, an administrative law judge has ruled the system acted “in bad faith” and broke New Jersey’s truancy law.
Administrative Law Judge Kimberly Moss, citing the statutes requiring all districts to take action against truants, concluded former state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson “violated (the statute) by abolishing the position of attendance counselor that is statutorily mandated.”
Anderson, Moss wrote, took the action as part of a plan to close a budget shortfall of $57 million–a shortfall caused primarily by $33 million in payments of district funds to privately-run charter schools. But, while school districts and other public agencies have broad powers to abolish jobs and lay off workers, they may not break the law to do it.
“The testimony in this matter has shown that there is no one in the NPS (Newark Public Schools) who is looking for truant students since the attendance officers were laid off,” Moss wrote in a ruling on a case brought by the Newark Teachers Union (NTU).
The NTU sued on behalf of the attendance officers and nearly 100 other school employees laid off by Anderson in 2013, ostensibly for budget reasons. Moss upheld the firing of the other workers–clerks and aides.
Moss described the responsibilities of attendance counselors who, under law, had extensive powers to track chronic absenteeism, search the city’s streets for truants, and even arrest them summarily and return them to school or their parents. She said the district operated four yellow school buses used solely to patrol Newark in search of students who should have been in school. Citing testimony, Moss wrote:
“Attendance counselor’s job was to report to the school and obtain form (sic) of absences, then contact the families or make house visits. They would make referrals for families to mitigate obstacles. The attendance counselors who were in the truant section would attempt to locate the students and bring them to school. If the student would not come to school, it was referred to a court representative.
“One of the core functions of attendance counselors was home visitation. In addition, they ha community based contacts that would help them find students. They asked local businesses not to sell to students during school hours.”
Anderson attempted to set up an alternative system of combating absenteeism using school employees who do other jobs, including administrators, nurses, teachers, security officers, guards, and so-called rapid response officers working in the schools. She called it “student support teams,” or SSTs. But these other employees could not leave the environs of the schools to find absent students.
“At this time, no one from the SST goes out looking for students who are absent,” Moss wrote.
The law, she concluded, “requires districts to appoint attendance officers. From the above discussion, NPS violated this statute when it abolished the attendance counselor’ position. Petitioners have shown that NPS, by violating the above regulation, acted in bad faith.”
Under school law, decisions by administrative law judges must be reviewed by the state education commissioner–now David Hespe. He has 45 days to accept, reject, or modify the decision of the judge. If he doesn’t act, the judge’s decision becomes final.
Ironically, when Anderson acted to close the budget gap by laying off statutorily-required attendance counselors, the state education commissioner was then Christopher Cerf. As commissioner, Cerf approved Anderson’s budget plans in 2013.
Hours after Moss’s decision was released, Cerf attended a school board meeting where, among other things, he appointed a committee to study chronic absenteeism in the Newark schools. He acted after school board members, reviewing the growing problem of truancy, demanded that action be taken.
But, until recently, the state-appointed administration of the Newark schools–either deliberately or inadvertently–filed attendance reports that indicated most schools had perfect attendance.
Cerf did not stay at the school board meeting Tuesday night long enough to answer questions from media. But Valerie Wilson, the district’s school business administrator, said she had not been informed of the judge’s decision.
“I have to look at it,” she said, but she conceded the order–which could include the rehiring with back pay of the 46 illegally fired counselors–would aggravate yet another budget shortfall this year.
Parents and community leaders have blamed the dismissal of the attendance counselors, not just for chronic truancy, but also for tragedies that have befallen students.
Last year, the still unexplained death of Brenda Keith, a 15-year old West Side High School student, occurred after she stopped coming to school–and no one in the district was available to try to find her. Her badly decomposed body was found in an empty lot about a thousand feet from the school. The Essex County prosecutor’s office still has not determined a cause of death.