After 27 years, Paterson is poised to regain local school control

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Proud educators, including Benjie Wimberly, posed after the New Jersey Board of Education voted to restore local control to Paterson’s School District. Wimberly started teaching at Paterson’s Public School 13, just before the state took over the troubled district in 1991. He’s thrilled to see locals back in charge.

“The bottom line is the state failed. I mean, they failed miserably. And I was a part of that. I was a teacher when the state took over. I received a pink slip those first two years when the state was here. I was here when they got rid of home economics, and auto mechanics, and shop, some of the things that have never recovered,” Wimberly said.

“It was difficult. We had several superintendents in place. Each one came with their idea of what it would take to get Paterson to succeed. They were not all good ideas,” said Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund.

Bitterness lingers, and after two-plus generations under state control, kids struggle and PARCC test scores remain low. Among high schoolers, 91 percent failed math and 83 percent failed language arts last year. But high school graduation rates almost doubled, from 45.6 percent in 2009 to 87.8 percent in 2017.

“I’m not going to make excuses that our test scores are the way they are. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but at the same time, students are achieving and we see student growth throughout,” said acting state district Superintendent Eileen Shafer.

State officials praised the district.

“This is a result of collaborative efforts that involved parents, students, teachers and administrators who, working with the educators at the Department, helped put the systems in place for improved academic achievement and stable governance,” Acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollent said in a statement.

But the district remains chronically underfunded.

“We were $270 million down, and as a result of that, 526 bodies, people that worked with our children, were eliminated,” Shafer said.

Paterson must now create a transition plan. But was the state takeover worth it?

“I wouldn’t call them corruption, but there were certainly some issues of waste and mismanagement. I think they stemmed some of those, but trying to get over the hump in terms of instruction is really difficult,” said NJ Spotlight founding editor and education writer John Mooney. “It’s not surprising people feel bitter about it. They were pretty disenfranchised from controlling their own schools.”

Only Camden schools remain firmly under state management, as the state’s already returned state control to other districts, including Jersey City and Newark.

“It’s not necessarily a failed model, but there’s a limit to what it can do,” Mooney continued. “And the state is finally realizing it just can’t stay in there forever and think these things are going to change.”

“Some of these parents now were under state takeover, so they’re just excited to have an opportunity to have a home-based education system right here in their hometown,” said school parent Mark Fischer.

The next step comes in November, when city voters will decide if they want to elect school board members or have them appointed by the mayor.